Dan Green kindly (I think) led me to what "Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools," a Kansas organization, considers "Great Titles for high school" and "Great Titles for 6th grade through any age". These titles, they explain, "represent some of the best examples of traditional classics, American literature, British literature, contemporary literature, and titles from authors with different cultural backgrounds. Many of these books have also been referenced on English Advanced Placement exams. Others are suggested from a variety of recommended reading lists. These books are outstanding examples of high quality literature, are absent of gratuitous sex, violence, and profanity per Blue Valley's selection policy 4600, and have one other thing in common: They are not on the "approved" reading list dated 9/2000 for Blue Valley Communication Arts (English) classes." I've read just about everything on this list, and would certainly agree that most of these novels qualify as "best examples" of "high quality literature." But I couldn't help wondering two things:
- Has anyone associated with this group ever tried to teach pre-twentieth century literature to pre-college students--or, for that matter, to college students?
- Has anyone associated with this group actually paid attention to the contents of the books on their list?
As a Victorianist and all, I'm certainly for teaching 19th-c. literature. But as someone who remembers going to high school (and remembers the anecdotes of others who go to high school), I have to concede that most 19th-c. literature bores kids in their early teens out of their minds. Bear in mind that I'm speaking as someone who, in fact, grew up on 19th-c. prose style. It's still the case that most of the great "adult" novelists of that century require more emotional and intellectual maturity--not to mention more experience reading, period--than any early teen can be expected to have. Certainly, a number of texts on this list would work in the average junior high or high school classroom: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Red Badge of Courage, A Raisin in the Sun, Keller's A Story of My Life, Little Women, Hans Brinker, Rip van Winkle, The Call of the Wild, Anne of Green Gables, Around the World in 80 Days, and Swiss Family Robinson. Some of the others, however...
- I fail to see how R. D. Blackmore, G. A. Henty, Margaret Mitchell, Edna Ferber, Zane Grey, Jane Porter, and W. H. Hudson qualify as examples of "high quality literature." They're 2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-rank pop authors. I'll grant that Grey and Mitchell are very good things of their kind, respectively, but could we please refrain from trying to pass them off as the literary equivalent of, say, the apparently objectionable Toni Morrison?
- Middlemarch is not "great" for high school. It is too long, far too difficult, and requires a level of intellectual sophistication beyond the reach of any average high schooler. The same is true of David Copperfield, as well as just about any Dickens novel except, perhaps, the early novels and A Christmas Carol. (We read Great Expectations at my high school, and both the bleakness and Pip's psychology were well outside anything we could appreciate at the time.) Silas Marner and Ivanhoe were required reading when my parents were in high school: they and everyone else of their generation to whom I have ever spoken remember both books with sheer, absolute, unmitigated loathing. Even Victorianists dislike Silas Marner, and Ivanhoe doesn't represent Scott at his most interesting (Old Mortality might be better, or The Bride of Lammermoor--but Scott's stylistic quirks probably haven't worn well for a non-specialist audience). Very, very sophisticated seniors might be able to do something with Jane Austen, but they'd need a very, very sophisticated teacher to go along with the books. I seem to recall finding Howard Pyle's faux "olde Englishe" rather hard going. Moby Dick? Moby Dick?! Moby Dick?!? This would be the same novel that many college students find too difficult? And are people really reading James Fenimore Cooper with great enthusiasm these days?
- Are we absolutely sure that there's nothing parents might want to know about before reading, say, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? I presume that the authors of this list haven't looked at the unexpurgated version of Anne Frank's diary. Given Westward Ho!'s presence, I'm guessing that Kingsley's rabid anti-Catholicism is OK with everyone, then. And...er...there's nothing obscene in Gulliver's Travels? But at least this group doesn't object to homosexuality--or so one has to presume--given the inclusion of Master and Commander (O'Brian has both good and nasty gay characters, but the novels themselves, this one included, take a pointed pro-gay line).
- If this group wants to ask high schoolers to read Anthony Trollope, shouldn't they read some good Anthony Trollope, as opposed to second-rate Trollope (The American Senator)? I don't know if The Warden would work or not, but, for once, it's at least a novel of the right length.
- This list shows no sign of basic practicality or any awareness of possible pedagogical difficulties. A number of these books are long out of print or available only in expensive editions. While the Harry Potter series has, no doubt, accustomed many kids to reading long novels, that's not quite the same thing as saying that Harry Potter has accustomed many kids to reading nine hundred pages of George Eliot or Charles Dickens. And, to reiterate, even some of my graduate students find 19th-c. prose style difficult to read (let alone Bunyan, Defoe, and Swift)--these are going to be high-maintenance books.
- Incidentally, Jeff Shaara didn't write The Killer Angels--that's his father, Michael. It's Patrick O'Brian, not O'Brien, and there's only one "l" in "Helen." (Look, we all make typos in names--I've confessed to some bloopers myself--but you'd better not do it in a document arguing for higher standards.)
ADDENDUM: In the heat of my irritation (exasperation? bafflement? aggravation? all of the above?), I failed to be specific enough about the 19th century issue: while the list is, by and large, devoted to 19th-c. lit--perhaps because the 19th c. is supposed to be "safe"--there's quite a bit of early and mid-20th-c. lit. there as well. (Obviously, since I mention it.) But you'd think that contemporary literature was plague-ridden, given its almost total absence. Oh, and I forgot to rail about the inclusion of Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, but I'm sure that my readers can imagine my rant for themselves.