We were sitting around after brunch a couple of weeks ago when we started arguing over whether middle and high school teachers should assign books that are challenging–to expose the students to meaningful works that they probably wouldn’t come to on their own–or books that are accessible and entertaining–to foster a lifelong love of reading. We didn’t come to any grand conclusions, probably because there are decent arguments to be made on both sides, although the fact we were all talking over each other may have had something to do with it too.
What we did agree on was the following:
1) that too often teachers will choose books that they think middle or high schoolers will like because they were written for that age group, but the students all detest them. Our conclusion: if you’re going to go for something easy and enjoyable, make sure it really is enjoyable. Otherwise you’re just wasting everyone’s time.
2) that a challenging book can become a beloved one when a really good teacher helps the student find the universalities in it and make sense of the whole thing. Working on a puzzle is only satisfying if you can ultimately SOLVE it. Reading an opaque book is only pleasurable if you can ultimately break through and understand it; and
3) that there are many classics that are entertaining in their own right, and teachers don’t assign those enough. Instead they include the most famous books by the most famous authors, which are often neither their best nor their most enjoyable. My own pet peeve is about Dickens: Our Mutual Friend is a terrific read and very relatable, but teachers love to assign Great Expectations, which is just annoying. How are kids supposed to know that Dickens is a magnificent entertainer if their only early exposure is to his dreariest work?
It made me realize that there’s a “sweet spot” for classics–books that are in the traditional canon and are also really fun to read. While I can’t completely resolve the “reading for gain versus reading for pleasure” debate, I do know that these books solve the issue simply by giving us both.
After the brunch, one of our friends emailed me to ask if I would send her a list of the books I considered important for everyone to read at some point in his life. While I was working on a list for her (mostly culling from other people’s “best of” lists–I’m lazy that way), I decided I’d edit it for my blog to include only the books I feel hit that sweet spot of being challenging and delightful in equal measure.
So here’s my list of TRULY GOOD books–ones that are as enjoyable as they are famous. They’re in no particular order–except that Austen, Bronte, and Dickens come first here, as they do in my heart. And please note: I was an English literature major in college, so 19th century Brits may be somewhat overrepresented. I wish I had as wide a knowledge of other countries’ literature as I do of England’s, but I don’t.