The good books I read during my high school summers, the "classics" I mean, were a hardy few -- five? six? -- perched atop a much thicker layer of pulpy reads (Stephen King, Ludlum-like thrillers). But if I drew a pyramid-shaped graph of how I spent my summer hours in those years, the bulky base would have nothing to do with reading at all: It was a composty mass of driveway basketball, grocery bagging, camp counseling and really bad TV.
And the thing is, I could have stuck with TV if I felt like it. The '80s were pro-choice when it came to reading. Read Crime and Punishment, read the rolling credits at the end of "Three's Company": The School Board had a preference, granted, but it did no enforcing. Whether students cracked a book was entirely up to them. One byproduct of the rise of the "standards" movement -- for good or ill, but surely mostly good -- has been the rise of mandatory summer reading lists, which brought down the curtain on those laissez-faire days. As recently as a decade ago, reading lists, when they existed, were lengthy rosters of recommended classics posted at the library, spiced with a few funky selections (Tolkien, Dune, The Crying of Lot 49) whereby the sly librarian pushed his or her faves.
But the voluntary route leaves too much room for the opt-out. "What people were finding was that reading skills would drop over the summer, and that parents were floundering as to what their children should read," says Dawn Vaughn, a librarian at Cherry Creek High School, in suburban Denver, Co., and president of the American Association of School Librarians. Vaughn's school began issuing reading diktats three years ago. "It's a national trend," she said. And it's certainly one that has infiltrated the D.C. area.
Given my reading habits -- King, not the canon, and no serious nonfiction -- I could have used a few nudges in the direction of more ambitious books (no slight toward the unflagging, talented King intended), and so I was curious about the new must-read lists.
Can these compulsory lists create readers and improve the literary diet of existing ones? Or does the heavy bureaucratic hand evident behind the lists deaden even the best books? (A caveat: Never fall into the trap of thinking there was once an arcadia of universal, voluntary reading.) I spent a few weeks -- hurriedly, right at the end of summer, which of course is entirely in the spirit of the summer reading list -- perusing what students were plowing through. I looked mostly at 12th-grade lists, with a few glances down the other grades of high school.
A cultural conservative might predict that multiculturalism and "issues" fiction had swept away the old canon, such as it was. There was some of that. One can detect a certain thread, for example, running through Rockville High School's mandatory list for rising seniors, which included Daughter of Fortune, by Isabelle Allende, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, China Boy, by Gus Lee, Hunger of Memory, by Richard Rodriguez, and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accent, by Julia Alvarez. (The list also included works by Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein -- 20 books in all, of which students were asked to read two.) That list has just a whiff of the kind of agenda back-row cynics are good at sniffing out: We're going to make you better citizens of a multicultural society, dammit. Now, imagining other ways of being -- opening oneself up to the Other -- is one purpose of fiction, but it isn't the only one. Whether these books deserve the charge individually -- who these days thinks Morrison isn't worth reckoning with? -- collectively they give off something of a didactic scent.
At the other extreme -- on another planet, really -- is the mandatory summer humanities reading list at the pricey private Landon School. Juniors there just came back to school with the following under their belts: The Odyssey, Plato's Phaedrus, two books of The Aeneid, several chapters of Exodus, the Gospel of Luke and Tristan and Iseult. It's a list that might have been preserved from 1870 -- and I mean that in the best sense: I wish I'd read those works in high school rather than college (or never, in the case of Tristan). Where's the joy, my preppie friends? Does every page a student reads need to be a brick from the foundations of Western Civ? The critic James Wood describes one purpose of reading as acquiring "news about the current state of the soul," but the Landon kids aren't getting many news flashes dated this millennium.
More than those first two lists, the one for seniors at Walt Whitman High probably signals where the zeitgeist is these days, at least for the most ambitious schools. That means it's an impressively wide-ranging hodgepodge. Rising seniors read -- or were supposed to -- The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien's fictionalized grunts'-eye take on the Vietnam War, while honors students also read The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. They then chose one more title from a list that included The Awakening, by Kate Chopin (an ur-feminist text they will meet again in college); the cult comic masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole; Dust Tracks on the Road, Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography; Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison; Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead; and Sartre's "No Exit." I picture two kids, each picking a book at random to trudge through dutifully. One ends up scaling Howard Roark's massive ego and Rand's craggy prose, the other pondering Ignatius Reilly's madly misfiring pyloric valve. Did they know what they were getting into? How would their reading futures change if the picks were reversed?
Give Walt Whitman High credit for the stab at humor, too, because from Evelyn Waugh to the two Amises to George Saunders, high schools don't seem to have much patience for the wits and satirists in the English literary tradition, even though no one is better primed to sniff out hypocrisy and false piousness than a teenager.
It doesn't take a trip to the archives to realize that analogous lists in, say, the 1970s must have included more Hemingway, more Fitzgerald, perhaps more Sinclair Lewis. The shift away from some of those names isn't all that startling, but I was surprised by the absence from every list I saw of the writers many people over 30 think of as the giants of the last generation: Bellow, Roth, Updike.
Maybe sex keeps those authors off the lists. (However, Ken Follett's pulpy page-turner The Eye of the Needle is an option for Yorktown High School 12th graders, and it includes an epic sex scene, if I remember my own reading correctly. That book probably didn't kill students, so why would Updike's more artful sensual imaginings?) Yet actually the sad thing is that one senses that these writers have been dubbed controversial but irrelevant. To (over)generalize, the lists vault from Fitzgerald and Steinbeck right to Barbara Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood (whose Handmaid's Tale was the choice for some seniors at DC's Benjamin Banneker High) and Tim O'Brien. A fissure has opened between what editors of, say, the Library of America think of as the canon, and the English teachers' canon, and we'll see whose vision wins out in the end.
Students' "taste should not be consulted," my slightly insane 11th-grade English teacher used to intone with an implied wink, quoting Flannery O'Connor: "It is being formed." That lofty approach might not condone the amiable nonfiction offerings that Walt Whitman High School gives its rising juniors, Bill Bryson's witty A Walk in the Woods and John Krakauer's cinematic Into Thin Air, but I like the idea of showing students that good writing exists outside the confines of literature. Also, like humor, nonfiction often gets slighted in high school, represented mostly by deadly textbooks.
However, I am still close enough to the high school sensibility, close enough to my own onetime ambivalence about reading, to know when schools go wrong with these lists by pandering. Alongside The Eye of the Needle, Wuthering Heights, Sense and Sensibility and Rebecca (by Daphne du Maurier), for example, Yorktown High holds up a sampling from the oeuvre of none other than Cal Ripken, a specimen called The Only Way I Know. That comes across like a get-out-of-jail-free card for non-reading athletes, doesn't it?
Meanwhile, at Sherwood High School, teachers tell rising seniors to have read any book -- "more than 250" pages long -- on a list of subjects including "cinematography" and "government" and "physics" (okay) but also "sports" and "fashion design" (hmm). Does a fat Vogue count? How about the Rock's autobiography? Mine is what you might call the free-range-chicken theory of summer reading: freedom but not that much freedom.