EDITORS' NOTE: In response to our invitation to readers to recommend good books for high school students ("You've Got To Read This!"), we had a nice stream of letters, far too many to publish in Book World. A selection of the responses appears in our issue of Sunday, December 12, 2004. Here are all of the other responses, unedited, just as they arrived on our desks:
I'm Author Gary K. Wolf, the creator of Roger Rabbit.
I grew up in the fly speck farm town of Earlville, Illinois, population 1,406. There were only 25 kids in my school class. Lucky for me one of them was John Myers. John was then, and still is, my best friend. He is also the Catholic Archbishop of Newark, New Jersey.
I remember quite clearly one especially significant literary incident from our mutual youth. It was 1956. We were high school Freshmen. John brought me a book he had just finished. "You've got to read this," he told me. "You're going to love it. It's science, and it's fiction! It's Science Fiction." That book was Anthony Gilmore's 1951 adventure saga Space Hawk.
As always, John was absolutely right. I read Space Hawk, and I did love it, just as much as he had. Because of Space Hawk, John and I both sought out and read books by other writers in this, to us, new and exotic genre. We discovered a whole colony of speculating giants, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Phillip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison. Two farm-town boys, both hooked on wondrous postulations of life in the future. Imaginary worlds. Incredible machines. Astounding creatures. Amazing visions. Science AND fiction. Science Fiction.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that Space Hawk changed my life. I grew to love Science Fiction so much that in later years, I wrote and published Science Fiction stories and novels of my own. In fact without Space Hawk I would never have created Roger Rabbit. One led directly to the other.
As we grew older, John and I frequently discussed our continued mutual fondness for Science Fiction stories, books, movies, and TV series. During these conversations, we often spoke nostalgically of that book which first got us addicted. Space Hawk. We traded verbatim quotes of its flowery prose. Want an example? How about this. "The Vesuvian quivered, his face still contorted with his last desperate emotion. Then he sagged to the deck. His body twitched and rolled over in a spasm. Almost square between his eyes was a crisp, smooth-burned hole. The air reeked from the smoky stench of charred flesh." Ahhh. Science AND fiction. Science Fiction.
John and I spoke of Space Hawk so often, and so fondly, that I decided to track down and re-read that seminal work. After a diligent search, I located and bought two copies, one for me, one for John.
I opened my copy and prepared to be as mesmerized as I had been in my youth.
What a shocker!
Space Hawk was total trash. Poorly written, badly plotted, multiple levels below a 1930's Flash Gordon movie serial. The hero, Hawk Carse, was a one-dimensional, cardboard yahoo. Part of the action took place in a lusty outer space colony called Port O' Porno. (I suppose human biology qualifies as Science.) It got worse. Example, Carse's trusty, devoted, sidekick, a "big black Earthman" whom Carse had rescued from a Venusian slave ship. Carse named him, are you ready for this, Friday! Friday behaved like an interstellar Step-n-fetchit. My beloved Space Hawk was a mediocre, soft core, racist potboiler.
This was the book that changed my life?
John's reaction? The same as mine.
I told John we ought to keep the title, throw out everything else, and write a Space Hawk story the way it should have been done. To my great joy, John said, "Let's do it."
And so we are. We are rewriting the book which first got us both interested in Science Fiction. Rewrote it the way we wished it had been written in the first place.
I don't recommend that high school students read the original. Wait for ours instead. I guarantee it will be better.
Gary K. Wolf
Science fiction stories can be a wonderful way to explore issues of ethics and morals, by creating situations that test our assumptions. David Brin's The Postman, is one example of such a story. Although the movie made from this book received much disdain, the original novel remains an intriguing exploration of the nature of civilization and the cultural habits that either aid or hinder it. This is a good book for students and teachers; in fact, a teacher, Don Braden, created a web site with civics lesson plans for both the book and movie, at http://postman.cosmic.org/cover.html.
[Affiliated with Reading for the Future, an informal group that promotes the use of science fiction in the classroom (http://readingforfuture.com/); my own web page is at http://groups.msn.com/AndysUsingScienceFictionForEducationPage/]
A Short Reading List for High School Juniors and Seniors, with Justifications.
A Farewell to Arms. E. Hemmingway. Probes the boundaries and intersections of love and duty in a war where participation is supposedly altruistic. A convincing view of the way in which loyalty shifts, and what motivates the shifts. A necessary book for 2004 and beyond.
The Autobiography of William Allen White. W. A. White. A history of the way in which the pains and conflicting demands of youth and beyond can be accommodated, and of how the resulting compromises can be accomplished with self-awareness and dignity. White gives perceptive view of American people and events in a period that is strikingly similar to our own times, and it sometimes an advantage to learn to be critical of the past before taking on the present.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. J. Joyce. For anyone who has to live with competing demands of family, religion, patriotism, and ambition.
There is little in what was written after 1950 that was not done better before.
Sidney M. Blair, MD, PhD
I think high school students should read Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Each of these novels is well written and entertaining. Each got me to open my mind, ask questions and see things differently.
Catch-22 shows the horror and absurdity of war through a kaleidoscope of insanely funny situations taking place in World War II.
To Kill a Mockingbird gives a real sense of wonder to a young girl working out the unspoken rules of her small town society and what it means to be normal or equal in a community where people are not equal.
The Master and Margarita is a hilarious satire, a mix of fantasy and reality placed in Soviet Russia describing the commotion that occurs when the devils retinue comes to Moscow causing the characters to break the rules of their society.
I have recommended these books since I read them in high school and no one has been disappointed.
Here are some that I did not see on the list:
The Bridge of San Luis Rey -- Thornton Wilder
Anna Karenina -- Leo Tolstoy
My Family and Other Animals -- Gerald Durrell (for humor, charm, pure delight)
Catcher in the Rye - J.D.Salinger
Lost Horizon - James Hilton
Plays of Shaw, Ibsen, Oscar Wilde
A Breath of French Air -- H.E. Bates (this is fun) -- available in Penguin Edition, if still in print
CARYL PINES CURRY
Thanks for the invitation! Here are my three nominations:
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser. Despite his often clumsy style, Dreiser's brilliant apprehension of the human consequences of the volatile nexus of fundamentalist religious fervor, the headlong pursuit of wealth, and the sometimes dangerous overemphasis on individual achievement in America is deeply insightful, and completely relevant to this day. It's also a great story!
Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is still one of the most moving books I have ever read. I have never forgotten Holden Caulfield, nor the closing paragraph of the book, which brings a catch to my throat whenever I think of it.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell is a good book for anyone in this privileged country to read at any age, but perhaps best read when youthful energy and outrage over the inequities of the society we have created and sustain are strong enough to actually inspire action -- and maybe even change things for the better.
Winged Words Editorial Services
The expansion of European Imperialism was nothing if not successful, at least from a European perspective. In The Measure of Reality Alfred Crosby (1997) illustrates convincingly (and without genetics) that the spread of European Imperialism was possible because of a gradual shift toward quantitative thinking. In other words, the advantage went simply to those who could measure, calculate, control, quantify.
At a time when reading, writing, and critical thinking skills are increasingly important, Crosby's careful research is a must-read. Fortunately it is also an easy, accessible, and surprisingly fun read. The ability of Western Europeans to measure and calculate had enormous impact on Fine Arts and music, as well as math, bookkeeping, and the military. Crosby illustrates this throughout with wonderful examples. (Square roots helped officers arrange hundreds of men in those new-fangled battle formations of the Renaissance, p.6). Any student who has ever wondered how they can apply what they learn (and who hasn't?) should read Crosby.
The ability to quantify will continue to distinguish the "haves" from the "have not"s in the next era. The good news is that in America, quantitative thinking need not be restricted to one group.
CATHERINE E. BILLINGTON, Ph.D.
(Parent of two university students and one high school student)
always enjoy the Sunday Book Review section and generally find onr or
more reviews to cut out and save.
I check the book lists my grand children are given in their schools. The
lists you published pretty much conform with what I see. Frankly, I am
always disappointed that the students today don't read the quantity or
type of books I had in high school and before. We read many works by
Alexander Dumas, James Fenimore Cooper, Washington Irving, Francis
Parkman, Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, L. M.
Alcott, and many more authors that I expect you can remember - plus of
course Homer, Greek playrights, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and other classics.
But I will skip over these and mention as my choices for essential study:
N. Machiavelli - The Prince and Discourses
I studied these texts in early high school and found them fascinating.
No doubt this led to life-long study of all Machiavelli's works and my
graduate degree in the history of political theory.
If students today would study Machiavelli with benefit of formal
discussion with teachers in class, I believe their understanding of
contemporary politics and hence their role as citizens would be greatly
L. Tolstoy - War and Peace
While I read many historical novels, straight history books, military
history books and the like, I think "War and Peace" was very
influential in developing my thought about the subjects of the title and
about human nature and warfare.
Both authors provide profound insight into human motivations, the role
of individuals and 'social forces' in history, and the working out of
'cause and effect' relationships through out history, both planned and
especially unplanned by human actors.