Sunday, June 24, 2007

The worst book ever, and a few alternatives

So, if you read the last post, you have realized that by age 45, I don't appear to have accomplished a hill of beans when it comes to reading all of the great books that I should have by all rights long since finished. OK, so I'm a slacker. However, in my defense, I was forced, with the threat of penance hall with Fr. Rivoire, to read some awfully bad alternatives during high school and college. And the whole reason of this post is one of them, the worst book ever foisted on high school students passed off as great literature (or, just the worst book ever passed off as great literature (TWBEPOAGL), for short). If you haven't gotten my hint, I really loathed this one, and I think it should be banished from required reading lists forever.

Just off the top of my head, I can think of several excellent substitutes for the worst book ever passed off as great literature :

  • Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry -- I generally can't stand westerns, but the character development in this book is second to none; plus, it doesn't contain the driveling, whiny complaints of a teenage boy like TWBEPOAGL
  • Atlas Shrugged (or its cousin, The Fountainhead) by Ayn Rand -- hardly "great writing," but it certainly is a great source of ideas which need to be discussed by young people: self-reliance, integrity, and an understanding that it is the people of this country that make it work, not the government
  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole --- you want quirky? You got quirky! Once the reader gets past the humor (and there's plenty of it), this book carries a warm humanity, gently prodding us to look at our own quirks, failings, and inconsistencies
  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre --- fabulous characters, a wonderful sense of drama, and it is a good way to introduce today's students to the Cold War and the evils of communism
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky --- yes, it's hard to read. Yes, it requires patience and an active discussion in the classroom. And yes, reading can be one of the most rewarding experiences in a young person's life. A fabulous dissection of right, wrong, conscience, and consequences.
  • Perelandra by C.S. Lewis --what would have happened if free will had not been introduced to the garden of Eden? As always with C.S. Lewis, well-written and thought provoking
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn --- I can describe this no betther than with the review: Solzhenitsyn's first book, this economical, relentless novel is one of the most forceful artistic indictments of political oppression in the Stalin-era Soviet Union. The simply told story of a typical, grueling day of the titular character's life in a labor camp in Siberia, is a modern classic of Russian literature and quickly cemented Solzhenitsyn's international reputation upon publication in 1962. It is painfully apparent that Solzhenitsyn himself spent time in the gulags--he was imprisoned for nearly a decade as punishment for making derogatory statements about Stalin in a letter to a friend.
  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams --- a mid-semester fun book about nothing and everything, just to take the tension off. The test covering this book should consist of one question: What is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything? (If you don't know the answer, you need to read all of the books in the series).
  • The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe --- fun, with a wildly different style of writing than high school students will have been exposed to, and carrying an introduction to "modern" hubris that needs to be absorbed ("I'm a Master of the Universe!")
  • QB VII by Leon Uris-- no, it's not about football. It is a British courtroom drama involving libel....and quite a bit more than that. For a teacher who wants to introduce students to the Holocaust from an oblique angle, and have his/her students read a very well written book, this is an excellent choice.

I can go on and on. I am sure that everybody that reads this (all two of you!) can easily name one or more books that would be great additions to the standard high school reading list. I read some great books with some fabulous teachers --- the poems of Shelley, Lord Byron, and Yeats; the Iliad and the Odyssey; the Aeneid (in Latin, no less); and Crime and Punishment with the late, great Mr. Joe Kratville, which was an experience I remember with great fondness and clarity.

To be honest, I read some real dogs too --- The Good Earth comes to mind --- but none comes close to the book that shall not be named --- what a waste of paper, what a non-stop, overwrought description of a whiny, wimpy teenager. I wish I could convince a few English teachers that it needs to be tossed in the trash bin and replaced with something -- anything! -- better.