Let’s be honest: we all had to suffer through reading some dreadful books in high school.
As someone with a background in English education, I understand the importance and the relevance of many of the texts taught in schools; the Canon be praised. But that doesn’t mean kids these days don’t groan as violently when they find out they have to read The Scarlet Letter as kids did when I was in high school nearly a decade ago (time flies when you’ve got student loans to pay).
I was fortunate for the most part. My high school teachers were on the fringe when it came to literary choices. I read all the big important titles: Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Raisin in the Sun, A Tale of Two Cities, Beowulf (my least favorite text in all of human creation). But I didn’t have to sit through classes on The Great Gatsby, A Scarlet Letter, Catcher in the Rye, though I did have to teach these to myself come college.
My teachers opted for other texts, ones that I’m not sure were always so interesting but were certainly challenging in their own right. So while other 10th and 11th grade classes stuck to the big guns, I read lesser known canonical texts: Our Town, Two Friends, House on Mango Street (which I hated as a 15 year old but would be willing to give it another go).
Independent reading was heavily emphasized in the higher English levels at my school, so I read several other canonical texts on my own for projects. This lead me to other texts that were just as influential as the same old same old stories taught year in and year out.
I wish that schools would consider revamping their curriculum much more than they usually do to include other texts, particularly from other parts of the world. But the canon remains, and American literature dominates the high school curriculum structure in place because, uh, it’s America, so c’est la vie, as our French comrades are known for saying, though who has actually ever heard a French person utter this say…
There are so many excellent books I wish high schools would incorporate into their classes, and the following 3 are just a tiny, tiny sampling of ones I read as a high school student and got far more out of than many other texts forced upon me. Maybe one day students will encounter these, but with the current state of education in this country, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
One. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
I know what you’re thinking.
“This book is about the brutal murder of a family and the death penalty! You can’t teach this as a main text!”
I know. I know. But the reasons why they SHOULD teach this far outweigh the reasons why they SHOULDN’T.
There’s the very small yet vital fact that this book helped to put creative nonfiction on the map as an independent genre. It’s a fascinating story and has the ability to captivate the reader until the very end. Yes, it’s depressing and has more creepy moments than you can count on one hand, but it is a major work of historical writing in American culture. Kids are so exposed to crime dramas now that it’s (sadly) nothing new to them. It’s easier for them to fall into the story.
You can’t do that with Nathaniel Hawthorne no matter how hard you try.
Two. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Despite the insufferable chapter where Wilde depicts every single hobby, sport, and inquiry Wilde delves into, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a wonderful text to introduce the dialectical journal to students. It’s challenging enough for a high school text while filling the British author quota. It was the first book in which I actually kept a dialectical journal while reading, and the amount that I got out of this book because of this exercise was incredible
Plus, who is more badass than Oscar Wilde- a man who was jailed for having enormous amounts of debt and being a homosexual and lived to tell the tale? Badass right there.
Three. The Hunger Artist by Franz Kafka