From Required Reading to Life-Long Favorites
NEA staff member Jamie Hand, seen standing in the back, with her 8th grade Gettysburg Group, 1992. Photo courtesy of Jamie Hand
The new school year is starting up, and I'll admit it: I'm jealous. I miss school. When the oppressive heat of summer fades, and the air starts to turn crisp, I always find myself missing that sensation of fresh starts that the new school year used to bring. I miss carrying a brand new bookbag full of shiny new school supplies, as yet unmarred by the inevitable doodles and notes. But I'll also admit, actual homework and required reading don't necessarily make it onto my "I miss..." list. A few of those assignments I never quite managed to make my way through (The Red Badge of Courage, I'm looking at you). But some of those required readings I loved---much to my teenaged surprise. They opened me up to authors, characters, and worlds that I'd never known before---and might not have ever known, given a chance otherwise. One summer reading list included Of Mice and Men, and I remember falling so deeply into the lives of the characters that I ended up sobbing over them, something I'd never done over a required reading before. Thinking on this, I wanted to ask some of my colleagues about their experiences with required reading assignments. What was their favorite? Their answers are below.
It wasn’t technically required, but my 8th grade social studies teacher lead a special “Gettysburg Group” every spring that in retrospect was sort of a Civil War book club, culminating in a chaperoned trip to Gettysburg, reenactment and all. That’s when I first read Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, which according to Wikipedia “has been required reading, at various times, at the U.S. Army Officer Candidate School, The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, the U.S. Army Special Forces Detachment Officer Qualification Course, and The Basic School for Marine Officers (TBS). It is one of only two novels on the U.S. Army's recommended reading list for Officer Professional Development.” Mr. Sherman used Killer Angels to teach us not just about American history, but about leadership and humanity. I’m attaching a photo from 1992 for reference [see above]---that’s me standing in the back.
When I was in high school (sophomore year, if memory serves), I was assigned to read The Scarlet Ibis, by James Hurst. I was very moved by it and still consider it a great American short story. It’s sad, but it’s also poignant.
You can put me down for A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as my first favorite required reading book. Not the most original choice I know. It was the first book ever assigned to me that I literally couldn’t put down, which was a surprise to me at the time. I finally understood the meaning of the term “page-turner” in reference to real literature, as opposed to young adult murder mysteries like Nancy Drew that I had read for fun as a child. The vivid prose allowed me to visualize the characters and places for myself, and the back and forth swiftness of two parallel story lines sucked me in. I remember being satisfied with the ending, yet sad when I had finished it! This year is the bicentennial of Dickens’s birth so he has been written about in the mainstream press more than usual lately.
Definitely Catcher in the Rye!
Two books came immediately to mind: The Scarlet Letter and Anna Karenina. Incidentally, it was so fun to see Anna Karenina made into an opera. Scarlet Letter is in progress as an opera next, and will be premiered by Opera Colorado in May 2013. I loved the books. And it’s even more enjoyable to watch an opera based on a novel that you had to study in depth in school because you are so fully informed about the novel itself.
Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon
You Are Not A Stranger Here by Adam Haslett
Jesus's Son by Denis Johnson
Actual Air by David Berman
I absolutely loved Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I couldn’t put it down.
My favorite required reading was in high school---Steinbeck’s East of Eden. It led me to later enjoy The Grapes of Wrath in a college course, and many of his shorter novels in my free time. I even planned a trip to the Salinas Valley in California and went to the Steinbeck museum. I loved his characters, the family drama, and the California history. He remains one of my favorite authors.
I remember being required to read The White Album by Joan Didion in freshman lit. There was a story about the Doors, about Joan Didion hanging out in the studio waiting for Jim Morrison to arrive. Not much happened, it was sort of anti-climatic as far as the band was concerned, but earth-shaking to me as a reader, because by giving details, she gave a better sense of what it must have been like to be there. She talked about her own troubles and gave the real story. I didn’t know you could add yourself into writing. I almost read fiction exclusively then but The White Album introduced me to well-written non-fiction which I prefer to this day.
My favorite required reading is a bit odd, I guess. I loved Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I don’t know what that means about my own heart, but after reading the book in my high school world studies class, I couldn’t shake it! The character of Kurtz baffled and frightened me---I even had nightmares about him, but I was captivated and chose to write *five* separate papers on the novella for class. I still re-read it once a year!
In high school, an English teacher that I adored suggested that I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved for extra credit. I loved the book! Thought it was amazing! I still think it’s one of the best books ever written. Morrison wrote about the psychological effects of slavery with such creativity, and Beloved is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read; love of self, family, community…
---Takenya A. LaViscount
For more information on The Big Read and our selection of books, please go to The Big Read website. Happy reading!