A Counter-Cultural High School Summer Reading List
Bleak modern books rule too many high schools. Here are some classic works that will excite and inspire.
By Gilbert T. Sewall in the Wall Street Journal
Parents often think fate has singled their children out for poorly chosen school reading assignments. It hasn’t. A distressed father recently told me about seeing his high-school-age daughter’s summer reading list and realizing that it was devoted exclusively to contemporary writers such as David Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell and Barbara Ehrenreich. “This Boy’s Life,” Tobias Wolff’s highly regarded autobiography, published in 1989, was the oldest book assigned.
Whatever the list’s merits—and this is an ambitious set of books for 16- and 17-year-olds—the choices added up to a melancholy landscape of contemporary injustice, distress and dysfunction. The student’s father, a Thomas Hardy admirer, mourned the opportunity cost. I told him that summer-reading assignments are often a lot worse—at least there was no Young Adult dreck or Hobbit Lit here—but he asked if I could come up with an alternative reading list.
I agreed, and turned first to a distinguished 1984 survey, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, of classroom masterworks. Thirty years later, I realized with regret, most of these august recommendations don’t hold up. Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, Henry James and Theodore Dreiser, among other titans, are basically unsalable to today’s high-school students.
That may be unfortunate, but let’s be realists, not perfectionists or antiquarians. Short works have an incomparable advantage over long reads in the Attention Deficit age. So, facing facts, I asked several teachers whose erudition I admire to identify their literary ne plus ultra—masterworks and extracts from them in the Western literary tradition that they found hard not to love and learn from, easy to teach, simple and direct, yet teachable on ascending levels of interpretation and complexity. I combined the teachers’ nominees with my own choices to come up with a roster of all-stars that promises great summer reading and would likely pay lifelong, unfolding dividends to the lucky teenager.
Let’s start with four remarkable nonfiction works:
• “The Eruption of Vesuvius” (79 A.D.), Pliny the Younger. Writing to Tacitus of the flames, darkness and ashes, he vividly documents the most astonishing natural catastrophe of the ancient world, including a moving description of his esteemed uncle’s death.
• Declaration of Independence (1776), Thomas Jefferson. Exquisitely written and considered, these revolutionary principles of republican government still excite the mind.
• “Self-Reliance” (1841), Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yale literary critic Harold Bloom, in his new book on literary greatness, “The Daemon Knows,” calls Emerson’s hymn to individualism and enterprise “the matrix . . . of the ‘American Religion.’ ”
• “The Souls of Black Folk” (1903), W.E.B. DuBois. This cri de coeur drawing the color line in the era of Jim Crow helped set a freedom and equality movement in motion.
Summer reading seems to me a time ripe for dreams and fantasy, and here are a dozen works of fiction and poetry of profound depth and grandeur:
• “The Odyssey” (c. 750 B.C.), Homer. After battling the monsters Scylla and Charybdis and spending 10 years abroad, Ulysses returns to Ithaca, to his wife, son and faithful dog, Argos. He gets rid of the freeloaders and is home sweet home.
• “Aesop’s Fables” (c. 600 B.C.). Yes, for teenagers, a collection of entertaining, trenchant, moral stories. “The Ant” shows why hard work beats indolence. “The Tortoise” wins the race. “The Lion and Mouse” get along, win-win.
• “Georgics” (c. 30 B.C.), Virgil. In “Rustic Happiness” rural life is a green-grass idyll. “Pestilence” gives the other side of the story.
• “Metamorphoses” (c. 8 A.D.), Ovid. Icarus flies high with enthusiasm and ambition. Pygmalion turns stone into love. Narcissus finds himself.
• “Canticle of the Sun” (1224), St. Francis. In the original earth poem, Brother Sun and Sister Moon receive thanks for nature’s blessings, with prayers for all the world’s living creatures, and for peace.
• “Romeo and Juliet” (1594), William Shakespeare. They are the unmatchable pair, the adorable young lovers who resonate across the centuries with every generation.
• “Gulliver’s Travels” (1726), Jonathan Swift. Teenagers should learn what a Yahoo is, what a Yahoo acts like, and why Yahoos repel civilized people.
• “Candide” (1759), Voltaire. A young man of great optimism and idealism meets the best of all possible worlds and decides to cultivate his garden.
• “The Fountains” (1766), Samuel Johnson. Kind Floretta seeks perfection through money, beauty and wit—but settles for a full life.
• “Ozymandias” (1819), Percy Bysshe Shelley. Everything is dust in the wind, and there are no indispensable people.
• “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1834), Samuel Taylor Coleridge. All that water but not a drop to drink, a story of penance and—possibly—redemption.
• “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), Edgar Allan Poe. Eerie premonitions and spooky language stir suspense, and the perfect crime of immurement is always shivery.
To select a work from the 20th century and make the list of literary works a baker’s dozen, I chose—from a vast number of options that teachers recommended— George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (1945), the modern fable of statism and power greed.
My goal here isn’t to stamp out Diversity and Hipster Lit or Hobbits in contemporary classrooms but to contain their monopoly in many courses and schools. Eminent teachers whose taste I fully trust give high marks to Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison, but we know that students today will likely encounter those writers. Virgil, St. Francis, Johnson? Doubtful. If we turn our back on the past, shedding the best of it, we choose voluntarily to enter a new epoch, and one that is unlikely to possess an abundance of refinement or soul.
Mr. Sewall is the author of “Necessary Lessons: Decline and Renewal in American Schools” (Free Press, 1983) and editor of “The Eighties: A Reader” (Perseus, 1998).