If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Five Books Every Student Should Read in High School

This week is shaping up to be very book themed here at Build a School. Since I've been mostly focused on English issues recently anyway, I might as well keep it going.

I've already made the case that there is a certain amount of cultural knowledge that students should acquire during their English studies. For me, this includes having first-hand experience with certain works, so that they feel ownership of the knowledge, not just that they have acquired facts about titles and authors. So here they are, five books every student should read before finishing high school.

The Odyssey

For me, The Odyssey is the prime mover of all of Western literature. The story of Odysseus' long and troubled journey home has directly or indirectly inspired so many great authors (Joyce, Frazier, The Cohen Brothers) that it is impossible to imagine the course of Western literature without it. In addition, it is relatively easy and fun to read, full of all kinds of memorable twists and adventures. It presents students with many literary ideas that will help them understand other works: epic poetry, metaphor and simile, etc.. I think if I had to choose just one book, this would be the one.


Shakespeare gets a pretty bad rap in the world of high school. Students tend to take one look at the old fashioned poetic dialogue and decide that it must be boring, and certainly not worth the hard work of trying to understand it. In the hands of a great teacher, though, one who can break through those initial barriers and get students to see the beauty of the language and the universality of the emotions, reading Shakespeare in school can be a life changing experience. I had a hard time deciding which play to choose for this list. In some ways, Romeo and Juliet is the easier choice, with a lot more that the students are likely to identify with. Fundamentally, though, I just think Hamlet is a better play, and there is still plenty there for teenagers to latch onto.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Probably the biggest hole in my own education was that I didn't read Huck Finn until well after graduating from college. By then, I knew a great deal of the story anyway; it's so much a part of our culture. I include it on the list because I can't think of a more American book. So much of our national identity relates to themes of this book--the legacy of slavery, the pioneer spirit--that it's hard to think about being American without including the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the picture. There are also great opportunities for drawing connections, both within English studies (here comes The Odyssey again), and to history class.

Fahrenheit 451

Within the limit of five books, I was trying to get a variety of genres and time periods. I wanted a Sci-Fi book in the group, because I think they are a great way to see how fiction can help us think through real-world questions. I picked Fahrenheit 451 because it's about the importance of books. There's a lot to talk about related to the power of fiction, the influence of TV, the role of government in society, etc.. I had a couple more possibilities for this spot, but I'm sticking to this one.


I wanted to finish off the list with a contemporary author. For my money, Toni Morrison is the best American writer working today, and Belovedis her masterpiece. I can't begin to do it justice in a couple sentences, so I will just say that it is one of the finest and most powerful books I have ever read. Again, there are all kinds of tie ins to history and to other literary works, and plenty of things to get students talking.

There it is, five books I think every high school student should read. Obviously in a four year career, they are going to read a lot more than five books, so I'd love to hear from everyone else.

What would your top five list be?

1 comment:

Jason said...

This is a nice list. F 451 was one of my favorites in high school. I've read it at least once since. Not often that a book you are forced to read turns out to be a favorite on your reading list, but that one did it for me.