Required Reading

3268My friend over on Jangled Nerves just let off a blog post on classics – based on yet another post, here, that details “16 Books Every Teenager Should Read in 2016”. So, I toddled over to that post and checked out this list of required reading. I mean, I’m not a teenager – haven’t been one in quite some time (sorry if that bursts a bubble for you) – but if there’s a list of must-reads, I want to know what it is.

And you know what? Of that list of sixteen books, I’ve read all of five, or maybe six. One (or two?) I read under duress, aka Literature Class in school, the other four I read because I loved them. And I pretty much know the Cliff Notes version of several others, which is enough to tell me that I’m not, in fact, interested in reading the full-length feature.

I actually find myself rather annoyed at the title of that original post. “16 Books EVERY Teenager SHOULD Read”. Why on earth should they? Because these are good books? Good grief, if that’s the reason, picking just sixteen is ridiculous. But what’s more, this list is highly subjective. For one, it’s quite US-centric – Gone With The Wind tops the list, but it’s one of those Cliff Notes books for me. No, I haven’t seen the movie either, because frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn about that story. For another, it’s a girl’s list of books. Sense and Sensibility? Jane Eyre? Fabulous books (they are, of course, on the list of four that I read for sheer pleasure*), but I can just see giving them to 16-year-old boys to read. 19th-century emo chicks mooning over romantic heartbreak – “Oh, Willoughby, Willoughby!” and “Reader, I married him…” – just kill me now. This, coupled with horrifically disturbing weirdness like Kafka’s The Trial (see “reading under duress”, above), is what’s chiefly responsible for turning many, many teenagers off books for life. Thank you, high school English class.

It’s not that I have a problem with this list of books per se – they’re great books, from what I hear. It’s not even that I disapprove of suggesting books for people to read; far from it. No, it’s the dogmatic headline, the “Thou Shalt Read This” that gets my goat. Because like every really voracious reader, I want to make up my own mind on what to read. And I think teenagers should be making up their own minds, too.

I never filled my children’s plates with food and then insisted they finish every last bite. I did (and still do) insist that they eat some vegetables with their dinner – but I don’t cook them spinach, because I know they hate it. I quite like cooked spinach, thank you very much, but if the kids would rather have it raw with salad dressing, so be it. There is no law that says “Thou Shalt Eat Thine Spinach Cooked”, nor is there one that says “Thou Shalt Read Kafka”. There are far too many good books in the world to force people to read according to a predetermined list. The ticket is to offer the veg, to suggest the book titles. I love Jane Austen – but if you don’t, why not read Sir Walter Scott instead? Ivanhoe is a darn good yarn.

Life, the Universe, and Books You Ought To Read. But only if you really want to. When you’re done all those other great books you’re reading at the moment. And the ones your friends suggested. And that one that just jumped at you from the bookstore shelf. And… Ah, never mind – just keep reading. And let me know when you hit on a good one, I’ll add it to my list of books to check out. I might get to it when I’m 80.

*PS: the other book from that list, the one I’m not sure if I’ve read or not, is Death of a Salesman – I remember being forced to read some kind of weird gloomy drama in undergrad English class; it might have been that. You can tell it made a big impression on my life. The other two I loved were, of course, The Horse and His Boy, and The Hobbit.

10 thoughts on “Required Reading”

  1. I like reading lists, especially from educators, for teens, simply because I don’t know what’s trending as university reading these days, and since you’re going to have to plow through some of these suckers at college, you might as well get started on it sooner; more time to digest them!

    I probably read half the novels I was supposed to in uni, and read the rest after (once you’ve bought them, you might as well read ’em!) simply because I didn’t have the time. It never dawned on me to get a classics list and read it ahead of time. Sigh.

    1. Oh yeah, I don’t have a problem with “recommended” reading lists. It’s “required” reading I dislike. Because actually, not everyone has to read stuff in college – for one, not everyone goes to college, for another, a lot of the ones that do don’t take English. And even the ones that take Lit Studies don’t necessarily read what’s on that list (ahem, case in point, moi). I’ve read boatloads of books, but not those. (Actually, I haven’t even read all the books in that picture up top, even though that’s my bookshelf. Planning to read them, yup. Got to it, nope.)

  2. Plus I’m sure someone like young Isaac read sci-fi and couldn’t get enough of them. Then eventually he chose to write for himself. But if someone like that would have been force-fed something like Jane Eyre because it’s on the must read list, perhaps young Isaac would not have become Isaac Asimov. There’s no such a thing as a cookie cutter library list.

  3. I’ve read five of them, failed to finish on, seen the film of another and have one in my reading pile as I write. I read Jane Eyre as a teenage boy and it switched me off anything labelled “classic” for years. In my 50s I am just starting to read classics again, trying to catch up on years of waste.

    1. My point exactly. You might find, after making your way through a big stack of rip-roaring good “classic” yarns (i.e. in about 20 years), that you can come back to Jane Eyre and find it quite good, after all. But to start out a teen boy on that – bad policy on the part of whoever made you read that.

      1. It was my Mum, I have read a wide variety of classic books for girls without too much trouble but Jane Eyre was a step too far. However, she did also get me started on Biggles and C S Lewis. 😉

  4. I would have no problem with that list if it were labeled: “Books I have read and want to enthusiastically recommend to everyone I know because I think they are so great.” But … a biography of Katharine Hepburn? What if you aren’t interested in old Hollywood or actors or anything like that? And I have zero interest in vampires, so The Historian would be pointless for me. Etc, etc. It’s such an oddly specific list, especially for teenagers, and I don’t get it. Which is pretty much my reaction to all “required reading” lists.

    Not to mention my (very personalized) irritation with the entry on The Horse and His Boy. First and foremost, I don’t care how publishers are organizing the series these days, you have to start with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe if you want to properly experience the magic of Narnia. Chronological order is negotiable for the rest of the series (I still strongly urge people to read them in the published order the first time, and then chronological afterward if they want), but you have to start with LWW. You lose so much of the magic otherwise. Second, why follow HHB with Prince Caspian? It’s a weird follow-up choice, both magically speaking and chronologically speaking. Which is all beside the point, but you know, Narnia. I have Strong Feelings.

    1. Agree on the Narnia books (and the rest, too, of course). I thought Prince Caspian was a bit of an odd recommendation, too. Interestingly enough, PC *was* the first Narnia book I read and got into, but it was quite confusing – it’s the most “sequel-y” of all the books; you don’t really get it unless you know all the stuff about the White Witch and Cair Paravel etc. But I did like it well enough that I sought out all the others to figure out what it was I wasn’t getting.

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