Great Books We Love to Hate

24 Aug

As much as I might whine about my years as a high school English teacher, there were many positive aspects, including the chance to interact with great literature.
Time magazine last month ran a list of “Top Ten Books You Were Forced to Read in School” in honor of the 50th anniversary of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and I was pleased to see that I had read many of the books; in fact, I have taught many of the books — sometimes passing on an appreciation of those books to my students … and sometimes not.
Top of Time’s list: To Kill a Mockingbird. I have praised this book already. Wish that more freshman students could have seen it as a pivotal experience in their reading history. Maybe it will occur to them later in life.
No. 3: A Separate Peace. Many of my fellow teachers skipped teaching this book at the freshman level, but since I had done a secondary ed paper on it at ASU and had lesson plans ready to go, I dived in. It was a hard sell with the kids, as a lot of the action takes place inside the main character’s head. I did show a good movie with it — Brendan Fraser in School Ties.
No. 4: The Catcher in the Rye. Now you would think that seniors reading this book would instantly bond with the prince of teen angst, Holden Caulfield, but many were turned off by what they saw as his whining persona. Like TKAM, though, The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books that you have to have under your belt to understand a lot of American popular culture.
No. 7: The Great Gatsby. I taught this just once, last year, and can’t say that I did a swell job of it. By today’s standards, the plot could be racier and the violent acts could be bloodier — if that’s what is needed to keep teens entertained. A few of the students enjoyed it for Fitzgerald’s graceful writing.
No. 10: Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which I taught to at least a couple dozen different groups of sophomores. I have loved Shakespeare since college days, and most years of teaching I enjoyed reviewing the rise and fall of this tragic hero and the numerous famous lines that come from this play. I required my classes to perform dramatic readings of a couple of scenes. Some kids gave very deadpan deliveries; others really got into it, especially when given the role of Macbeth or one of the witches. I kept a plastic black cauldron in my classroom closet, just for teaching Macbeth — and to have some fun with it.
Also on Time’s Top 10 list were Of Mice and Men (teaching The Pearl gave me a greater appreciation of Steinbeck); Animal Farm (need to reread this someday); Lord of the Flies (avoided teaching this to sophomores because I thought it kinda boring when I read it); The Scarlet Letter (uh-oh, I’ve never read this); and Farewell to Arms (read lots of Hemingway in college, luckily).
Go to this site and rate your Top 10: http://www.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2002836,00.html

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