Let’s Get Lit-erary: Should and should nots of required reading

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What immediately comes to mind when evaluating school-provided texts are three categories: books I approve of, books I disapprove of and books that should be required reading. Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels.

It’s pretty evident that most people don’t care for the books featured in school curriculums. In fact, most don’t bother reading them at all. But as a lover of literature, I can attest to having read — or at the very least, skimmed — every book I’ve been assigned to read. There have been highs and lows; some books become pleasant surprises, while others are, quite frankly, unbearable.  

Often, required reading is outdated, harping on problematic societal roles. Whether these roles are promoted or critiqued in the novel at hand, they pave the way for insightful discussion and comparison to present day.  

What immediately comes to mind when evaluating school-provided texts are three categories: books I approve of, books I disapprove of and books that should be required reading. 

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some of the best mandatory reads I’ve encountered: 

“Lord of the Flies” 

When my class read this in middle school, everyone thought Piggy was the star, but I found Simon to be an absolute gem. This book twists the childhood dream of having no adult supervision, as a group of young schoolboys are stranded on an island. Most frightening are not the perils of the island, but the boys themselves.  

“In Cold Blood” 

“In Cold Blood” reads much like fiction, offering a unique perspective on the true story of the Clutter family’s murder. Truman Capote, after years of research, was able to put together a compelling case against capital punishment through his innately human portrayal of killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickcock. Capote aimed to create the first nonfiction novel, and from my assessment, is quite successful in doing so.  

“Frankenstein” 

This novel is on the list not so much for its contents — although it’s certainly notable — but for defying expectations. Until reading “Frankenstein,” my image of the title character was limited to what I’d seen in the Phineas and Ferb theme song and “Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein,” featuring David Harbor. I expected a green creature and a high-tech lab, but was met with cottage life and sled dogs instead. And I loved every moment of it.  

“To Kill a Mockingbird” 

I adore Atticus Finch and it’s evident “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic for a reason. We see the Southern —and very racist — setting unfold through the eyes of 6-year-old Scout, coupled with her fascination with their mysterious neighbor, Boo Radley. Incorporating a child’s point of view in a novel catered towards adults is uncommon practice, but enhances a tale when done skillfully. Similarly, Rachel Beanland uses this technique in an effective way in her debut novel, “Florence Adler Swims Forever.” 

I adore Atticus Finch and it’s evident “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic for a reason. Photo by maureenlafleche via flickr.

“Hamlet” 

I found “Hamlet” to be much more engaging than “Macbeth” and even “Romeo and Juliet,” primarily because everyone knows how the latter story ends. The plot kept me on my toes and I was especially drawn to Ophelia and her maddening plight. From the Shakespeare I’ve read thus far, she’s the most fleshed-out female character.  

In stark contrast to the works above, I had some issues with the following pieces of required reading: 

“The Art of Racing in the Rain” 

Although I praised unique perspectives just moments before, I’m not very fond of seeing things play out through the lens of a dog. What some may have seen as comedic, I found to be clichéd. Though I suppose the take of a “talking” dog is uncommon in literature, I’ve seen it way too many times in television for this story in particular to really resonate with me.  

“The Jungle” 

I’d give “The Jungle” a 10 out of 10 when it comes to historical significance and enlightenment. I commend Upton Sinclair for his ability to enact such major change to a flawed system through his work. I found it very informative, but incredibly depressing. Ultimately, it was not a gratifying read.  

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” 

Mark Haddon is praised for his portrayal of a teenager with Asperger’s Syndrome, but something didn’t sit right with me when I read this. It sparks an interesting discussion about what stories are and aren’t acceptable to tackle. How come, for example, Maddie Ziegler is unable to play an autistic character, but Freddie Highmore can star as one without critique? 

Finally, here are my suggestions for enhancing the list of required texts: 

“Between the World and Me” 

Short and not so sweet, Ta-Nahesi Coates offers a shocking and enlightening portrait of African-American injustice and identity in a letter to his son inspired by the works of James Baldwin.  

“The Circle” 

Dave Eggers does an excellent job warning against the rise and infiltration of technology and infiltration. My favorite element, however, is the protagonist Mae Holland, who is somehow both likeable and unlikeable at once, and her role in pushing toward extremes.  

Very few pieces of required reading have been written by people of color, or in the 21st century. Diversity in terms of both authors and characters is unbelievably important to include in curriculum.  

Very few pieces of required reading have been written by people of color, or in the 21st century. Diversity in terms of both authors and characters is unbelievably important to include in curriculum.  

I would also strongly advocate for the inclusion of more young adult, fantasy, dystopian and contemporary novels into school curriculum. These genres may be scoffed at by literary critics, but I’d argue they carry great value. Most young adults are reading bildungsromans, as they too, are coming of age. Classics are great, but lack the sense of relatability a genre like YA brings to the table. Plus, how enjoyable would it be to cover an entire series over the course of a semester or school year?  

There’s a lot to love and hate about required reading, but ultimately, I think every book is worth a shot.  

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