This semester, my teenage son’s AP and “gifted" English class read Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. He hated that book. “Some dude had the idea that success is based on when your birthday is," my son said. “It’s stupid."
I’ve never heard a more accurate review of Outliers, which is a fine book if it’s one of 30 books you read in a year as an adult. But it doesn’t work as a centerpiece of sophomore-year English. My son has read The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, MacBeth…and Outliers. If you want the perfect recipe for making teenagers hate reading, I think I just listed it.
I started thinking about what teens need to read, exactly, before they head off to college. Ideally, as much as possible. But it’s hard to get even the smartest high-schoolers to read for fun when they already have homework, activities, video games, parties, and endless choices on Netflix.
__(While we've got you: How to Write a Damn Good College Essay, As Explained by a Three-Time 'Jeopardy!' Winner)__
The world contains millions of books, and thousands of essential ones. Any list will, inevitably, feel incomplete. And it’s almost impossible to come up with a comprehensive list of “essential" books that doesn’t feel biased, stodgy, or totally wrong. But I figured I’d give it a try anyway.
I’m not about to tell a contemporary teenager “you must read H.L. Mencken." Lots of people once considered that Baltimore journalist the foremost practitioner of the English language, but that number is slowly declining towards infinite zero. At the same time, I don’t want to sit here and say, “You have to read The Handmaid’s Tale so you can be READY." It’s also possible to try too hard for relevancy.
SO, finally, here comes your list. I, an ancient and wise man with lots of important friends, sent out a call for recommendations. Everyone was too busy to care about the youth except for me and my old Northwestern University friend J.A. Adande, an ESPN personality who’s now in charge of Northwestern’s Sports Journalism program.
“My book," J writes, “is The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X__ and Alex Haley. College often provides a different racial mix from where people grew up, and reading this book is a prerequisite for having any discussion of race in America. I read it after graduating high school; it was both enlightening and infuriating and opened my eyes to the history and dynamics of this country."
OK, that’s a good one. Thank you, Professor Adande. Let’s try some more.
The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.__ This one covers a lot of bases. Not only is it a deeply-moving memoir of an Italian Jewish scientist imprisoned in Auschwitz during World War II, it’s also a collection of avant-garde short stories that celebrate the glory of independent thought. The book educates and entertains about chemistry and the dangers of Fascism, sometimes simultaneously. And it also alters literary forms with creativity and playfulness. For such a slim volume, The Periodic Table gives a pretty full education.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith.__ Kids leave school hating books because the books they read in school are boring. And they almost never get to read anything in the thriller genre. Tom Ripley, Highsmith’s twisted doppleganger protagonist, both loves and loathes people who are wealthier and more popular than he is, a theme than any high-schooler can appreciate. He’s motivated by obscure demons that even he doesn’t completely understand.
This book, a masterpiece of pacing and voice, also provides a nifty window into what the culture of the 1950s was really like. And if you say it’s too bloody, you’re wrong. The body count pales in comparison with the Shakespeare plays high-schoolers stumble through every year. And it’s just so much more wicked. Also, Highsmith broke tremendous ground for American female authors, moving away from traditional “women’s" subject matters. She remains a primary influence today for English-language mystery and thriller writers, both male and female.
One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.__ Yes, it’s long and there are a lot of characters, and sometimes the paragraphs go on forever. But it’s impossible to overstate the importance of this book in global literary history. Before this book appeared, South American writers occupied scant presence on the world stage.
Only the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda got a mention in the dorms. Garcia Marquez, a former muckraking journalist from Colombia, exploded the possibilities of the novel with this book, forever changing the way people look at South American culture. Few writers have ever deserved the Nobel Prize more. Bonus points if you can read it in Spanish, but the beautiful and elegant English translation by Gregory Rabassa is a masterwork in its own right.
Hiroshima by John Hersey.__ Forget Malcolm Gladwell, this is The New Yorker writer that high-school students should be reading. With clear, elegant prose and blisteringly detailed reporting, Hersey writes about the nuclear attacks on Japan that ended World War II. Not only does he provide a stark reminder that we must never use nukes again, he also humanizes the Japanese people that seems obvious now, but after WWII, they desperately needed humanizing. A model of creative nonfiction and also a profound work of living history.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.__ Without this book, there’d be no Alice Walker, no Toni Morrison, no Colson Whitehead, and maybe no Blank Panther. The brightest star in the Harlem Renaissance sky, Hurston was also a trained anthropologist. This work not only gave radical life to black American female identity, it also brutally depicted the life of free African-Americans under Jim Crow. Few books have had as much lasting impact on American culture as this one.
The Stranger, by Albert Camus.__ In this short but intense Existentialism 101 novel, Camus perfectly depicts the intellectual and moral malaise that afflicted European society after World War II. This book also has a lot to say about colonialism and the culture clash between Arabs and the West, a topic that just might still be a little relevant today.
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin.__ Before LeGuin came along, science-fiction was largely a sausage fest about robots and space battles. Though she wasn’t the first person to examine gender identity through science-fiction, she’s the most influential. The androgynous aliens who populate her planetary system in this capstone work of feminist sci-fi set the tone for our modern conflicts over transgender and non-binary identity. This is the parent book for everyone who’s now free to wonder where they might stand on the spectrum
1984, by George Orwell.__ The one book on this list that the majority of outgoing high-school students might actually have read, 1984 needs to be included because it remains a key reference point in contemporary political culture. In a world where language means either nothing or two opposing things at once, and all sorts of forces are trying to control our airspace and our freedoms, it’s important to understand what Orwell was trying to say in this book. Neither right-wing or left-wing, Orwell warns against totalitarianism in all its forms. We’d all do well to keep his ideas in mind.
Dubliners, by James Joyce.__ When it comes to the literary short story, Chekov in Russian and Joyce in English set the boundaries of the form, and have rarely been matched. Probably the most beautiful collection of short stories ever written, this is the Joyce that high-school students can understand You’ll be onto Ulysees in college soon enough, and then you’ll learn to hate reading all over again.
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