My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad

Currently reading...

Personal favorites

Search my library

Library Thing

Victorian Studies


Fine Arts

Buy Books!



« Deafening | Main | Atlanta Nights »

February 05, 2005



I agree with the points you made, and their list of "the best" is laughable, although I grudgingly concede that there is something to their point that one could probably choose a curriculum of great literature that wasn't R-rated, so why not do that.

I'm particularly struck by the absence of Shakespeare on any of their lists, either pro or con.


We read The Last of the Mohicans at my high school; I think there was a general consensus in the class that the story was interesting, but there was massive dislike for the style of writing (there were complaints about the length of the sentences every single day we were reading it).

We also read Great Expectations. I'm actually inclined to think it is a viable choice for high school, not so much because it is within a high school student's ability to appreciate many of the features of the novel, but because images from it seem to stick with people - or at least, they seem to have done so with people I've talked to. And I think that's something that has to be taken into account, too - not merely whether they can appreciate its major features, but whether it's likely to haunt them even if they miss out on a lot.


Some excellent points.

I would also point out that on the list of about 82 books they wish were included, we find only 3 books by people of color.

The list of books the schools *do* include, but which this organization objects to, has very different proportions .

"Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools" is certainly a group with an agenda. But that agenda is certainly not "literary standards."


A Christmas Carol is about the only Dickens good for teaching in a high school class - it's short, fun, and good - the other early stuff is never all three of those. Might raise some highbrows for religious purposes, though. But most of the others are far too long to really be taught in most classes, and the early ones, other than Christmas Carol, simply aren't nearly as good as the later ones (at least from my point of view). The plot of Oliver Twist gets ridiculous partway through, and Bleak House, which a lot of people assign, is entirely too grim to hold most people's interest nowadays. If I had to pick one to teach, I'd go with Great Expectations. It's not as long as his others, but is as good as any of them. You really need to take your time reading Dickens; it wasn't meant to be read in a couple of weeks.

Another option is Edwin Drood - it's pretty short. And you could have some fun making kids try to figure out what the ending would have been. However, it's certainly not Dickens at his best.

Were I a teacher (and I may yet become one), I'd love to teach Bleak House, my favorite of all the great novels. And yet, I'm not a fool.


Correction: I said "and Bleak House, which a lot of people assign...."
I meant to say "Hard Times."
Also meant "eyebrows," not "highbrows."

Sorry, I'm a big Dickens fan, and the chance to talk about him is a very rare occurance when you aren't in school. I get a bit over-eager :)


Your post just brought back a flood of memories of texts I read in high school English class (admittedly, this was AP): Native Son, Black Boy, Dust Tracks on a Road, The Awakening, Crime and Punishment, Othello, The Good Earth, The Count of Monte Cristo, Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Separate Peace, Light in August, and several others.

I share your shock at the "2nd-, 3rd-, and 4th-rank pop authors" who are assigned. Sheesh, even certain children's books -- like, say, A Wrinkle in Time -- might be preferable to some of those on the list.


Very well said. I can't believe some of the material they attempt to get high school students (myself included) to read and not even get into the complex nature of it all. Many of my high school English courses simply looked at the plot and never really examined anything beyond the written words...


In musing over some of their suggestions tonight, I was thinking that, really, Northanger Abbey is probably a better choice for high school than either Emma or Pride and Prejudice. Particularly, if it were combined with some Gothic literature before it was taught, say Jane Eyre, or Castle of Otranto (which is short), or even Fall of the House of Usher and maybe one of the Gothic Holmes' stories, e.g., Adventure of the Speckled Band.


This site is hilarious. Particularly where they get emphatic that while Shaks. has risque jokes, he doesn't actually arouse the reader.

Along with Gone With the Wind (which I understand *did* arouse generations of girls) and Zane Grey, Whittaker Chambers' "Witness" is a Great Work of Literature? Add that to Kipling and the Columbus bio and it looks like a parody of a politicized Great Books list.

The reviews section is great. I particularly enjoyed the review of Black Boy: "It is a sordid story of lewd living and self indulgence."

Sherman Dorn

A few more comments on this are at my personal blog entry where I pointed people here. I think you struck a nerve!


After having to read Great Expectations in 8th grade (eight grade!), I was convinced I hated Dickens. Thankfully, I changed my mind after reading Our Mutul Friend in college - but, agreed, forcing kids to read these books before they're ready doesn't teach them anything except that "classic" books are boring, incomprehensible, and irrelevant.


Robertson Davies wrote a book, Shakespeare for Young Players, which was used in Middle Schools during the 40s and 50s. It gently introduced children to blank verse and various plays by offering choice scenes for classroom performance. Dickens was introduced to some children through The Dickens Reader before WWII. It really is too much to expect young readers to be able to swallow whole novels or 5 act plays.


I'm not an academic (well, I'm a science grad student), and I haven't read most of the books listed, but I do feel I have to speak up in defense of _Ivanhoe_, which we read in H.S., and I really liked. Of course, I identified most strongly with the Jewish girl (was it Roxanne? it was 20+ years ago), which was probably not the author's intent...

I agree that you probably need to be fairly mature *and* well-read to appreciate some of this kind of stuff, and that doesn't describe most h.s. (or college) students. Me, my only hobby from age 5 or so on, was reading anything I could get my hands on. Did broaden my horizons about social encounters I'd never experienced, but wasn't much help with my age-peers.

Tim Peoples

In Chopin's Awakening, "orgasm and suicide are two major topics." Yet these people have no problem with Portrait, which features a transcendant sexual experience with a hooker AND the abandomnent of a young man's faith. Not that I like Chopin's short novel (I can't seem to finish it), but arguing for "moral" literature requires a consistent approach.

Also, the most contemporary on their list of desired books is Corretta Scott King's autobiography (60's? 70's?). (I only mention this because contemporary literature is my main interest.)

Gabriella Gruder-Poni

I did go to an excellent high school, but even allowing for that, I think many of these comments are shockingly condescending to teenagers.
While I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about the Austen (P & P) or the Dickens (GA, OT, To2C) I had to read in HS, _Middlemarch_, which I read on my own when I was 15 or 16, changed my life.
I'm surprised no one has mentioned _Crime and Punishment_, which everyone in my class loved. I think the shorter works of Tolstoy would also go over well.

The comments to this entry are closed.