July 9, 2011

Notes on Summer Reading in Rhode Island

Carroll Andrew Morse

Last evening, during a visit to a bookshop, I took a quick look at the table labeled "summer reading". I am not 100% sure that "summer reading" referred specifically to a high-school reading list, but two of the titles on the table were The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and I doubt that these books would place near the top of anyone's summer recommendation list in the absence of their reputation as books that students are supposed to read. Also, I've never understood why high-school English teachers believe that the literary theme of the misanthropic jerk (in Salinger, expressed directly through the main character, in Vonnegut, through the author's tone) is essential to the summer reading experience.

If there is any momentum for replacing Vonnegut with something good from the science fiction genre instead, I would like to recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by K.W. Jeter (known best as the book that the movie Blade Runner was based on, and a very good novella in its own right).

Anyway, following from the eminently reasonable assumption that no one has read Salinger or Vonnegut in at least the last 20 years or so because they actually wanted to, suggesting that the titles on the summer reading table were indeed recommendations for students, I was a little surprised to see A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn included -- which must mean, more than anything else, that I'm a little behind the curve, on how history is being taught in our high schools. Then again, there is evidence that a non-Marxist view of American history is catching up with the curriculum in some places, as Amity Shlaes' The Forgotten Man was on the table too.

But the best antidote to the reflexive because-America-has-been-strong-it-must-be-wrong radicalism of Howard Zinn lying on the summer reading table may have been Orson Scott Card's sci-fi novel Ender's Game. Ender's Game, which has made official high-school summer reading lists for several years now, explores themes of the morality and the consequences of the use of force in ways I suspect have a much bigger impact on many teenage minds than old-line Marxist historicism will. Just ignore the little coda at the end of EG, where the author forces a bridge between Ender's story and the next couple of books in his "Speaker for the Dead" series.

(The fact that links are included to all books mentioned in this post should not be interpreted as a suggestion to buy all of them).

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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep was written by Philip K. Dick. I've got it on my Kindle. Seemed like a great choice for an e-book

Posted by: Phil Hirons, Jr. at July 9, 2011 4:42 PM

You are correct, sir. K.W. Jeter was a pen-name for Philip K. Dick.

Posted by: Andrew at July 9, 2011 5:36 PM

For the men in the audience, I recommend any of John Sanford's "Prey" novels. It is best if you recognize the "sound of ripping sheet rock", and understand that owning a Rolex means "getting used to living on approximate time". There is no "hard sex", but a good deal of "appreciation" of the female form. I find his plots plausible, his dialogue superb, and a lot of insight into how things work with the media, police and other businesses. It is like a throwback in time to meet all these characters who hunt, have cabins in the north woods and keep a Kubota back hoe, just for the fun of it. Makes the Mid-West seem very appealing. The lead character is Lucas Davenport, a millionaire police detective in Minneapolis. He made his fortune when his software company developed police simulation programs. His wife is a surgeon, his natural daughter a prodigy, his adopted daughter a "hoot". No need to read in any order, but advances in technology (cell phones) make the older ones seem dated.

Sure beats a biography of Farinelli. I spent 2 summers, when I was a kid, getting through Gibbons.

Posted by: Warrington Faust at July 9, 2011 9:12 PM

They ought to assign something by John Updike or Cormac McCarthy,
McCarthy could be an issue in a few of his books as the "N"word occurs,albeit used correctly in the context of time and place.Let's put it this way-Oprah Winfrey wouldn't promote his books if he had a racial axe to grind.
His Border Trilogy,consisting of "All the Pretty Horses","The Crossing"and "Cities of the Plain" is unlikely to offend anyone and is some great literature.
I've read everything he's written.I believe young people could benefit from being exposed to his views on life and the transitory nature of security and happiness.
Religion and politics are notably absent from his works.
Updike wrote some great stuff,period.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 9, 2011 10:32 PM

The entire Ender series, up to 8 books now I think, is truly excellent.

Also anything by Heinlein should be on high-school reading lists.

Posted by: BobN at July 10, 2011 6:41 AM

A Game of Thrones - George R. R. Martin made me believe in well-written fiction again after a long period away from it. The plot and the writing are incredible.

Posted by: Dan at July 10, 2011 10:27 AM

I somehow managed to get through high school never having read anything from the summer reading list. I tried the usual selections from the brothers at Hendricken, but was usually so deep into my own reading I never bothered with theirs. My first quarter grades generally reflected my disdain for their suggestions on the "required" reading list.

Posted by: michael at July 10, 2011 12:31 PM

Joe's right on with McCarthy and Updike. I would favor addition to the summer list rather than subtraction. I'd add David Mitchel's Cloud Atlas and David Egger's Zeitoun and any of Annie Proulx's short stories. I am currently reading Narragansett Bay by Edgar Mayhew Bacon, a book I was going to hold off reading until the winter but couldn't resist.

Posted by: Phil at July 10, 2011 9:25 PM

I would add Larry Brown’s “Fay” or “Joe”. And short stories by John Cheever. I like Joe Bernstein’s and Phil’s suggestions mostly because I am familiar with those authors. Interesting other suggestions, too.
I do think there are legitimate reasons for still having”The Catcher in the Rye “ and “Slaughterhouse Five” included on a reading list. Both are considered by literary critics to be among the most influential 20th century works. Catcher introduced the modern antihero that became a huge part of modern culture, used in film and novels for decades. Slaughterhouse 5 is a great example of postmodern writing with its bending of time and use of and blending of reality and fantasy. Both have influenced other authors and have had an impact on popular culture.

Posted by: David S at July 11, 2011 6:33 AM

A lot of this is a reasking of the time-old high school question, "Why do we have to know this?"

I liked my Calculus teacher's response best - "To be an educated person."

Posted by: Dan at July 11, 2011 7:55 AM

Slaughterhouse Five, Peoples' History, Ender's Game... all among my all-time favorites. No accounting for taste, I suppose (also love Phillip K. Dick btw).

Posted by: Russ at July 11, 2011 11:14 AM

Just saw Dan's comment above. I'd also recommend "Game of Thrones" (and the HBO series which hooked my wife as well).

Posted by: Russ at July 11, 2011 11:31 AM

ALL TIME 100 Novels (English-Language novels from 1923 to the present)

Number 20

Number 82

Oh, and "Ubik" shows up as well (also quite good).
Number 94

Also it's too bad Ahab is in that "Moby Dick" book. Weren't there any novels with less misanthropic whaling captains?

Posted by: Russ at July 11, 2011 2:15 PM

Now that Communism has been defeated, is Orwell still assigned reading in schools?
I'm more an Irving fan...must reread "The World According to Garp."

Posted by: bella at July 11, 2011 2:25 PM

"In the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases."

Hmmm, sounds kind of misanthropic. ;-)

Posted by: Russ at July 11, 2011 3:47 PM

bella-Orwell is more relevant now than ever.He defined political correctness before there was a word for it.
Animal farm still applies to many places in the world(like the US Congress?).
Swift's Gulliver's Travels was really contemporary political satire,and Through the Looking Glass also to a lesser degree.They still hold up well.

Posted by: joe bernstein at July 12, 2011 9:55 AM
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