I was asked an interesting question in my latest job interview (almost 3 years ago): if you could only teach 5 major works of fiction to high school students, what would you pick? I can’t remember now which books I chose. However, I’ve thought about the question a lot since then, especially when friends tell me that they wish they’d had a better English education and ask for book suggestions to fill in the gaps. So I’m posting my list. These aren’t my favorite books–you’ll find me with Austen or Brontë any day over Hawthorne. I also realize that they’re part of the much-maligned “classical canon” that’s not very hip today. The language and opinions of these books may seem outdated. But choosing books that are enjoyable to read and that challenge the canon aren’t the criteria I use when deciding what to teach to high school students. Instead, here are my criteria:
1) These texts generate the most crackling, controversial, thought-provoking class discussions.
2) The language of these books provides enough of a challenge that students aren’t likely to read these books unless required to do so, but it also provides enough of a reward that they’re motivated to keep reading.
3) The stories are universal and deeply relatable; students can see reflections of themselves in the characters.
4) They demonstrate ideas that helped form our cultural identity (for better or for worse) in the modern Western world, even if they don’t reflect every individual’s story.
So here they are, in the order in which I would teach them to each grade.
1. To Kill a Mockingbird (9th). This book is an iconic American classic, and it deals with both the beautiful and the nasty aspects of our collective identity. It’s a sweet, funny, heartbreaking bildungsroman. It’s also a scathing, blood-boiling indictment of racism. Watching Jem, in his youthful ignorance, confront the vast landscape of human evil is simultaneously terrifying and relatable.
2. The Great Gatsby (10th). I miss teaching this book; it belongs to the history department at my current school, and I’m super jealous. In a society that makes wealth and fame the ultimate end, that makes excess seem reasonable, and that often defines the American dream in the most hedonistic terms, Gatsby stands as a bright warning beacon (a green light on the dock, if you will), showing us that the cost of living for ourselves is often losing ourselves.
3. The Scarlet Letter (11th). Teens are often astonished to discover reflections of themselves and their world in Puritan New England. Exclusion? Alienation? Carrying around secret guilt? Feeling ostracized by your community because of a bad choice you made? Feeling labeled and knowing that everyone sees the label instead of your humanity? All of these themes are present and accounted for in the tale of Hester Prynne, her lover, and her condemning community.
4. Hamlet (12th). I know it takes work for teens (and adults!) to understand Shakespeare, but the reward is worth the effort. Show Hamlet’s “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” monologue to a teen who struggles with depression and feels misunderstood and you’ll see what I mean. When we read that particular scene, in which Hamlet is trying to explain to his treacherous friends why he is so depressed that he can no longer see beauty in the world, I’ve seen more than student with a “shock of recognition” on his or her face.
5. Heart of Darkness/Things Fall Apart (12th). I know, I cheated. It’s actually two books. But I would never teach either of these books without the other. Joseph Conrad’s book uses the motif of colonialism to take a journey into the dark heart of mankind. We see how each character reacts to the discovery of his own sin: Fresleven freaks out and kills people, the manager absorbs the darkness and is strengthened by it, Kurtz tries to rule the darkness only to have it overwhelm and kill him, Marlow tells his story again and again in an attempt at catharsis (in the manner of the Ancient Mariner). While the evils of colonial oppression constitute the background of HOD, Things Fall Apart looks those evils full in the face. Chinua Achebe gives a soul and a voice to the silently oppressed. These books are two compelling sides of the same coin.
Yes, these books are mostly dark and depressing. But they present the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. They do not leave us in a comfortable coma, like fairy tales do. Being fiction, they provide us with the distance we need to view ourselves and our culture from a critical vantage point. They challenge our presuppositions about the world, God, and ourselves, dismantling the defense mechanisms we’ve constructed so that we don’t have to confront our deepest fears. They equip us to thoughtfully engage with the real world, which should be what English class is all about.