Some Thoughts on Lists – and an Introduction to a New Project

So lately Jill and I have been talking about lists. She shared with me the full list of recommended books from the BBC’s Big Read program, which I had previously known only in the abbreviated form in which it circulates on Facebook. I didn’t have a whole lot of respect for the shortened list, but I like the long one – and I also like the way the Wikipedia version of the list also includes links to similar Big Read lists from Germany, Hungary, and Bulgaria. The British list contains 200 books; the Germans were able to winnow the list down to 26 – and one of them is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. WHAT??

“Should we do something with this on PfP?” Jill asked. This is one of our favorite questions.

My immediate answer was that of course we should. But at the same time, we have a lot of little reading projects going: the AP challenge, PAT CONROY MONTH! – plus, we’re both always juggling a million books in our own personal lists of what we want to (and “should”) read. I wasn’t sure if we needed another reading challenge just now.

So, long story short, we decided to begin what will probably be a rambling, lengthy process of creating our own list of books that we think every educated person should read. It’s a pretentious thing to do, we know. I mean, who are we? We don’t have Ph.D’s in English, we aren’t all that old, and we certainly aren’t Oprah. And we don’t really expect the world to drop everything they are doing and read a list of books just because we tell them to. Nevertheless, we are going to try this, if only because of everything we will learn as we sort through our own reading and our own educations and attempt to identify the best of the best.

By the way, until recently I was the chair of a high school English department, and this list-making task feels quite a bit like the familiar task of planning a curriculum. For my first four years as a department chair, I had an ongoing argument with my head of school (who was kind enough not to pull rank and to let me keep arguing) about how one should go about this process. She believed that I should identify forty books (in a high school curriculum, this amounts to ten per year) that I think every educated person should read. That way, even if a student graduates from high school and never reads another book again, he or she will carry a reservoir of wisdom everywhere he or she goes in life.

Now, I have a great deal of respect for this head of school, but I think this concept of “forty books” is a fantastic fiction (and I think it’s ironic that she used the number forty, which is Biblical code for “lots and lots” – for an unspecified large number). If anything, I think that our AP Challenge here on PfP is perfect evidence for the fact that no high school curriculum is sufficient to imbue a person with a reservoir of wisdom. Jill and I had a GREAT high school education, and we were reasonably good students. We did our homework and paid attention in class – although, like many students, we took shortcuts and didn’t always read every book we were assigned as carefully as we should have. But all you have to do is look at our pre-reading notes on the books we read in AP English (“I think there’s – maybe – a black guy in it?)  to know that the last thing that course gave us was a reservoir of wisdom.

Instead of wisdom, what our AP English course gave us was skills and confidence. Neither of us had any trouble managing our English courses in college, and while we might whine and complain about some of the books we’ll be rereading in as part of our challenge (think we haven’t complained much? Just wait until next month, when Lord Jim is on the docket), in reality neither of us is likely to ever truly be intimidated by a book – not in the way that is dangerous, not in the way that would make us defer to people who use words skillfully and make us vulnerable to aggressive ideologies.

Hell, we faced down Father Murphy and three Henry James novels at seventeen. Seriously. Challenge us.

As far as I can tell, the best way to fail when writing a high school curriculum is to try deliberately to make the students wise. High school students are immature, and wisdom is a function of maturity. The purpose of a high school curriculum is to raise a students’ awareness of what literature can do and, most importantly, to give them the skills and confidence to read carefully and well so that, when wisdom arrives, the students will have some idea of what to do with it.

For that reason, when I argued with my former head of school I usually based my argument on two ideas: first, the idea that a curriculum is an instrument of seduction, and second, that texts are secondary to skills. The purpose of any reading list should be to make people want to read – given, of course, that people who choose to read do so for a wide variety of reasons and are attracted to a wide variety of texts, so while I feel sure that a high school curriculum should whisper enticingly into each student’s ear, it is not at all easy to determine what exactly it should whisper.

But I think I can be fairly emphatic when I say that what it should whisper is NOT “Henry James.”

Second, I think that the texts themselves are irrelevant. This is sometimes a harder point to sell. It seems as if everyone – even people who rarely read – has an opinion about what high school students should be reading, and usually this opinion bears a striking similarity to whatever that person read in high school. Even if they hated the books they read – possibly especially if they hated them – people seem to treat it as gospel that everyone else should read those same books. That’s why discussions about curriculum so often get heated. But I will maintain that as good a book as The Great Gatsby is, there is no rule that says that all high school students have to read it. Ditto for Huck Finn and The Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird and Macbeth and The Odyssey – and I should add that all the books I’ve mentioned here are books that I love and that I DID include in my curriculum when I was a department chair. But I do not believe that my students would have been shortchanged if they had not read these books – as long as they had teachers who put the development of their skills and confidence first.

So, long story short, I believe that the very concept of finding “forty books” that every educated persona must read is a fiction. In fact, I think that idea is actively destructive, since it can lead to a teacher putting all of her emphasis on the books and not on the students. I think that this static approach to curriculum is what often leads to students graduating from high school and never wanting to read again.

Nevertheless, the concept of list-making is fascinating, and while I am slightly worried that Jill and I are going to get so entangled in this Gordian knot that we’ll never untie it, I am looking forward to the process. So far we have established almost no rules: we have not decided how we will handle genre – whether we will make a list of novels only or separate lists of novels, story collections, nonfiction books, plays, poetry collections, and other genres – and we have not decided whether we will limit our list to a certain number of titles or simply continue to add titles until we are finished.

All we’ve done so far is to identify a starting point: the present. For now, we are going to put aside the established canon, although of course the canon will eventually play a significant role in whatever list(s) we create. For now, though, we are going to begin by brainstorming titles of books published in the last fifty years (give or take a few) that we think might have what it takes to make the list. Beware: I suspect that this early draft of a list will get enormous pretty quickly. Then we will discuss and read and reread and take suggestions from others and winnow and cull and – of course – continue to add even more books.

And maybe someday, a list will emerge.

To keep our discussions about the list separate from our reviews, we are starting a new page called “Our Great List: A Work in Progress,” and we’ll be writing our thoughts on that page, journal-style. That way, if you enjoy our reviews but think the idea of assembling a book list is pretentious and/or pointless, you don’t have to be distracted by it. If you’re interested, though, please check back periodically to see how we’re progressing. And there’s a comment field in the page as there is in any other post, so please leave us comments and suggestions and we will happily consider them.

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This entry was posted in Our Great List, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Some Thoughts on Lists – and an Introduction to a New Project

  1. badkitty1016 says:

    I am so excited about our new project!

  2. lfpbe says:

    Me too – and sort of overwhelmed by it too. It’s hard work being the intellectual conscience of a nation.

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