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.
Regular Readers and Honored Ones
Then there is the tracking issue. It seems fine for an honors student to read two books while regular-level students read one. But it's depressing that students on the regular track at Chantilly High School get saddled with the treacle-fest Tuesdays With Morrie while the honors students tackle Tess of the D'Urbervilles and "Twelfth Night." Worse, some schools ask only their honors students to read over the summer. (Lower down in the grades -- ninth and tenth -- the main trend I picked up was the colonization of many lists by the unconvincing and cliche-ridden sci-fi "classic" Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. After ill-advisedly making it part of my summer reading this year, I would recommend that even ninth-graders treat it like an interplanetary virus. Stephen King's much better.)
Sometimes book selections tell a story about educational inequality across the region -- which is when debates over the canon start to seem like a self-indulgent parlor game. Three of the books on the mandatory 12th-grade list this year at Hyattsville's Northwestern High School -- the high school nearest to my home -- might (and Julia Alvarez's How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents does) appear on other 12th-grade lists. But the final one, Probably Still Nick Swansen by Virginia Euwer Wolff, is recommended by the School Library Journal for grades six through 10. In that case, do you lament the choice or just hope the book snares a few 18-year-olds who never before had encountered a book they liked?
"I tell them about books I'm excited about -- ones I want to have long conversation about when they come back in the fall," Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia and author of the just-published Why Read?, told me when I called him to ask him about his philosophy of summer reading recommendations. "There's a self-serving aspect to it." His personal approach points up what's missing in the summer lists: one mind passing on a sense of excitement to another. Students could be excused for looking at most lists and wondering whether any human being was ever really thrilled by the books. (Last spring, Edmundson talked up Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude; Ann Marlow's How to Stop Time, a memoir of heroin addiction -- "If I taught in a public high school I wouldn't breathe a word about it" -- and Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, the last of which had at least three dozen eager takers. "I batted a thousand," Edmundson said.)
The institutional, dutiful tone of many lists explains why a reading list posted on the Web site of Arlington's Washington-Lee High School for an 11th-grade AP English class caught my eye. Yes, students get the expected classic, The Grapes of Wrath, but they also get a literary sampler plate: an Annie Dillard essay called "The Chase"; a polemical piece by the philosopher Peter Singer ("The Singer Solution to World Poverty" -- i.e., give away all your stuff); a couple of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet; a whimsical commencement address that spread quickly through the Internet several years ago, mistakenly attributed to Kurt Vonnegut ("Wear sunscreen. . . . Floss"). Those wouldn't be my choices, exactly, but that's the point: You can perceive a distinctive human intelligence behind them, one reader's enthusiasms. And the list casts a wide net, since students who find Dillard a dullard might warm to Vonnegut's skewed humor, and vice versa.
Where the Wild Books Are
As I looked over all the summer reading area students have been doing -- with an almost physical sense of envy, given my own constricted reading time now that I'm a new parent -- I began to formulate a theory inspired by a passage that 12th-grade AP students at Sherwood High were asked to ponder over the summer as they read. It is a passage from Thoreau: "In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and The Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us."
List-making itself, I was going to say, plays a part in taming the classics. What's less unruly than an "appropriate" book, given an imprimatur by a school board? Hamlet ossifies into an assignment to be checked off. Beloved gets swept under the rubric of simplified multiculturalism and is correspondingly reduced. And almost by definition, the cleverest new books can't make it on the lists, because someone would object.
But in the end these objections, while defensible, are pointy-headed and irrelevant, because the competition in our culture isn't between stultified reading lists and that imagined literary Eden I alluded to earlier, populated by universally eager young people surrounded by adults who are also passionate readers. No, the battle teachers are fighting is between reading and not reading. And in a non-reading culture you have to choose sides. Sure the teachers, the creators of these lists, could stand to indulge in some more free and wild imaginings. But they're fighting in a culture war -- one of the few non-creepy ones -- and mandatory reading lists, however ungainly, are one weapon at hand in the struggle.
Chris Shea, who lives in Hyattsville, Md., is a columnist for the Boston Globe's Sunday "Ideas" section.