I got the idea for this essay after reading John Scalzi’s blog post “An Anecdotal Observation, Relating to Robert Heinlein and the Youth of Today.” Scalzi is a successful young science fiction writer who gave his daughter a Heinlein novel to read that was a favorite from when he was her age. The novel was Starman Jones, and it was a favorite of mine too. His daughter didn’t care for the Heinlein book. My wife and I don’t have kids, but over the decades I’ve known an lot of parents who have tried to get their kids to read books they enjoyed as a kid. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. What’s great about this article is the hundreds of responses Scalzi got that provides a wealth of examples.
There’s a lot going on here. For example, many people claim books become dated. Well, that’s true if the child has grown up enough to know the book is dated. Many readers said they read their favorite books to their kids when they were quite little and their kids loved the stories. If you are seven years-old, do you know the difference between Treasure Island and Starman Jones? Do pirates and space explorers have any context to date?
Many other people pointed out that young readers have much better books to read today. If I could time travel back to 1964 and give my younger self a set of Harry Potter books, which would I prefer: Heinlein or Rowling? I’m thinking the 1958 Have Space Suit-Will Travel was the perfect book for me to love at age 12 in 1964, but it probably won’t mean much to many 12 year-olds today. Even the Harry Potter loving kids might have a hard time getting their kids to read the Rowling classics.
If you’re thirteen years-old and discover The Beatles, does it matter if it’s 1964 or 2014? Teen love doesn’t seem much different today than it did then, and today’s pop music isn’t that much more sophisticated except for the four-letter words and explicit sexual references. Sure a teen in 2014 can tell there’s a major pop-culture difference between The Dick Van Dyke Show and Breaking Bad. So some books might be timeless like a Beatle song.
When I was twelve, my dad read westerns and Mickey Spillane type thrillers, and my mother loved mysteries. They didn’t try to get me to read what they liked. And of the books they read as a kid, they were pretty silent. My dad once mentioned The Hobbit, which came out around the time he graduated high school, and my mother always talked about Little Women, but I’m not sure at what age either of them read these books, but I’d guess in the 1930s. Neither meant much to me in the early late 1950s and early 1960s when I started reading, and when I read them both when I was older, they were good, but not defining.
Now my parents hated rock music, and tried to get me to like their favorites like Perry Como and Dean Martin, but I declined. And my sister and I were always at war with my parents over what to watch on TV. I’m afraid we were selfish little shits. My dad loved Bonanza, but we’d throw teenage tantrums if we couldn’t watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. We were probably too self-centered to take reading recommendations.
What’s weird is now that I’m 62 I’d be cool with listening to Frank Sinatra and reading Kiss Me, Deadly. My dad died when he was 49 and I was 18, and like I said, we never had kids. So I’m an island in the intergenerational pop-culture sea. I’ve always loved the Heinlein juveniles, and wished they had become classics that all kids love—but that’s a silly sentimental desire on my part. I’m not sure if they deserved to be read by all kids. Of course, I’m not sure if all kids need to read the College Board Recommended Novels either.
Why do we want our kids to read the books we loved? To make them like us? To share what we liked? To give them a leg up on finding the good stuff? Most of the people who posted replies to the Scalzi blog listed books they discovered and loved as kids. Are our literary first loves so important? If you look at the College Board list of recommended novels below these are evidently what society thinks kids should read and know. I’m skeptical. I can’t believe these are the absolute best 100 novels everyone should experience as cultural literacy. Maybe these are the ones easy to teach. I’d do a lot of arguing over these titles. I’m an atheist, but even I would expect The Bible to be on the list.
I’m not sure the College Board list is any more valid than Scalzi and I wanting kids to read Heinlein. I’m fond of Heinlein for sappy nostalgic reasons. What would be the real reason to make a kid read a book? I’m a life long bookworm in my social security years and have only read 42 of the College Board books. Let’s get real. How many classic books should a kid read before he gets out of high school? This is only a recommended list anyway, so few people actually expect kids to read them all. But how many books should a well educated kid read that represents a well rounded cultural education?
I’d cut the list down to 24, and make sure those 24 are books everyone should know as adults and would speak from one generation to the next. But that’s me playing king of the book world. There’s only one book from the list below that I’d claim should definitely be on the list of 24 – Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
When I think about it, there’s damn few books I think we should make kids read, and what they would be would be hard to decide. My second book for the list would be Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, and it’s not even on the College Board list. My two would be it for 19th century English novels. Picking two 19th century American novels would be very hard and inspire me to write a very verbose essay.
Is there a minimum number of books everyone should read? That’s getting too much into common core thinking. Are there books so good we should try to get everyone to read them? Are there books we loved that define our childhood that we should expect our kids to read?
I do find that I feel closer to people who have read and loved the books I loved. My friend Charisse has read most of the books on the College Board list, so we have lots to talk about. I feel Charisse and I have a stronger connection than I do with people I know that we share no books in common.
Maybe society is putting too much hope in specific books, and what’s important is we all read a lot of books and then try to find out the books we’ve each read that connect us.
|Achebe, Chinua||Things Fall Apart|
|Agee, James||A Death in the Family|
|Austen, Jane||Pride and Prejudice|
|Baldwin, James||Go Tell It on the Mountain|
|Beckett, Samuel||Waiting for Godot|
|Bellow, Saul||The Adventures of Augie March|
|Brontë, Charlotte||Jane Eyre|
|Brontë, Emily||Wuthering Heights|
|Camus, Albert||The Stranger|
|Cather, Willa||Death Comes for the Archbishop|
|Chaucer, Geoffrey||The Canterbury Tales|
|Chekhov, Anton||The Cherry Orchard|
|Chopin, Kate||The Awakening|
|Conrad, Joseph||Heart of Darkness|
|Cooper, James Fenimore||The Last of the Mohicans|
|Crane, Stephen||The Red Badge of Courage|
|de Cervantes, Miguel||Don Quixote|
|Defoe, Daniel||Robinson Crusoe|
|Dickens, Charles||A Tale of Two Cities|
|Dostoyevsky, Fyodor||Crime and Punishment|
|Douglass, Frederick||Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass|
|Dreiser, Theodore||An American Tragedy|
|Dumas, Alexandre||The Three Musketeers|
|Eliot, George||The Mill on the Floss|
|Ellison, Ralph||Invisible Man|
|Emerson, Ralph Waldo||Selected Essays|
|Faulkner, William||As I Lay Dying|
|Faulkner, William||The Sound and the Fury|
|Fielding, Henry||Tom Jones|
|Fitzgerald, F. Scott||The Great Gatsby|
|Flaubert, Gustave||Madame Bovary|
|Ford, Ford Madox||The Good Soldier|
|Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von||Faust|
|Golding, William||Lord of the Flies|
|Hardy, Thomas||Tess of the d’Urbervilles|
|Hawthorne, Nathaniel||The Scarlet Letter|
|Hemingway, Ernest||A Farewell to Arms|
|Hugo, Victor||The Hunchback of Notre Dame|
|Hurston, Zora Neale||Their Eyes Were Watching God|
|Huxley, Aldous||Brave New World|
|Ibsen, Henrik||A Doll’s House|
|James, Henry||The Portrait of a Lady|
|James, Henry||The Turn of the Screw|
|Joyce, James||A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man|
|Kafka, Franz||The Metamorphosis|
|Kingston, Maxine Hong||The Woman Warrior|
|Lee, Harper||To Kill a Mockingbird|
|London, Jack||The Call of the Wild|
|Mann, Thomas||The Magic Mountain|
|Marquez, Gabriel García||One Hundred Years of Solitude|
|Melville, Herman||Bartleby the Scrivener|
|Melville, Herman||Moby Dick|
|Miller, Arthur||The Crucible|
|O’Connor, Flannery||A Good Man Is Hard to Find|
|O’Neill, Eugene||Long Day’s Journey into Night|
|Orwell, George||Animal Farm|
|Pasternak, Boris||Doctor Zhivago|
|Plath, Sylvia||The Bell Jar|
|Poe, Edgar Allan||Selected Tales|
|Proust, Marcel||Swann’s Way|
|Pynchon, Thomas||The Crying of Lot 49|
|Remarque, Erich Maria||All Quiet on the Western Front|
|Rostand, Edmond||Cyrano de Bergerac|
|Roth, Henry||Call It Sleep|
|Salinger, J.D.||The Catcher in the Rye|
|Shakespeare, William||A Midsummer Night’s Dream|
|Shakespeare, William||Romeo and Juliet|
|Shaw, George Bernard||Pygmalion|
|Silko, Leslie Marmon||Ceremony|
|Solzhenitsyn, Alexander||One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich|
|Steinbeck, John||The Grapes of Wrath|
|Stevenson, Robert Louis||Treasure Island|
|Stowe, Harriet Beecher||Uncle Tom’s Cabin|
|Swift, Jonathan||Gulliver’s Travels|
|Thackeray, William||Vanity Fair|
|Thoreau, Henry David||Walden|
|Tolstoy, Leo||War and Peace|
|Turgenev, Ivan||Fathers and Sons|
|Twain, Mark||The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn|
|Vonnegut, Kurt Jr.||Slaughterhouse-Five|
|Walker, Alice||The Color Purple|
|Wharton, Edith||The House of Mirth|
|Welty, Eudora||Collected Stories|
|Whitman, Walt||Leaves of Grass|
|Wilde, Oscar||The Picture of Dorian Gray|
|Williams, Tennessee||The Glass Menagerie|
|Woolf, Virginia||To the Lighthouse|
|Wright, Richard||Native Son|
JWH – 7/21/14