Summers come and summers go, reading lists for students tend to remain a constant, or… no?
According to The Boston Globe, the following are a few titles from high school summer reading lists over the years:
1915-1916 (long list of choices for regular year and summer)
- Walden by Henry David Thoreau
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
- Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
- Works by Stevenson, Twain, and Dickens
1984 (requirements by grade and academic level)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
2009 (recommendations, not requirements)
- Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
- Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
- Angels and Demons by Dan Brown
- Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
ah… the times they are a-changin.
Instead of (or, hopefully, on top of) reading the original Pride and Prejudice, students today are offered the zombies version… optional, of course. The current view is, students should be enticed to read, not forced to. Reading is supposed to be fun, after all, it’s summer.
Around the same time, Newsweek published The Meta-List of Top 100 Books of all time. The List is a compilation of 10 top book lists, including Modern Library, the New York Public Library, St. John’s College reading list, The Telegraph, The Guardian, Oprah’s, and others. The Meta-List… the mother of all lists.
Here are the top 30, just for a taste of the selections. For the complete list, click on the above link.
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
- 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
- Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
- The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929)
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952)
- To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)
- The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer (8th Century B.C.)
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
- Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321)
- Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (15th Century)
- Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726)
- Middlemarch by George Eliot (1874)
- Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958)
- The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951)
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
- Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
- Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987)
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939)
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981)
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
- Native Son by Richard Wright (1940)
- Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville (1835)
- On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)
- The Histories by Herodotus (440 B.C.)
- The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762)
- Das Kapital by Karl Marx (1867)
… and so on and so forth. You get the idea. Nothing on the top 100 list is later than 1987 (Beloved by Morrison) except Pullman (no. 84), and quite a few dating back to Centuries B.C.
Now, is this literary elitism that has not caught up with the times? Or, has our younger generation been short changed by not being taught to appreciate some valuable cultural legacy? How do we reconcile the discrepancy between what’s recommended to our students and what experts think are the best books ever written? Or, reading tastes vary, people are free to read whatever they like… Any list produced is therefore prescriptive and hegemonic?
Of course, one could argue summer reading lists are not academic syllabi, give our students a break. They’ll have the chance to read these great books at school… or, will they ever?
Still another debate would be the all too familiar struggle even among book lovers: Literary or Popular Fiction, old or contemporary classics? How do we choose? Reading widely or reading deeply?
And, the very practical question: How can I extend my 24 hours?
9 thoughts on “Top 100 Books & Summer Reading Lists”
Arti, I had to bop right over here after finding your comment and have a look at NEWSWEEKS top 100.
I wonder how they choose books for the list, to begin with. I think it’s an excellent list. I also think that a lot of book bloggers would come up with an excellent list and likely reflect a good deal of what’s on NWs 100.
Yes, I agree that summer reading lists for students are good and that they should be enticed to read. But somewhere, somehow in their education, people should be exposed to reading the classics (and the stuff prior to 1987!) Maybe I speak as a writer/reader, but I think the need to grapple with language, master it, learn expression, find the “universality” and also latch on to some time-proven concepts can only happen through reading. I dunno.
Overall, we’re lucky we love to read. Maybe that’s part of our “job” – to get the word out on some of the “old” wonderful books. Like you’re doing here.
OK, now I’m going to go look at the complete list. Maybe, just maybe, this will be a way to organize my reading right now because whew, I’m all over the map with waht I’m looking at. (and woefully overdue at the library on one the books I took out- Alice Munro, book of short stories!
Come to think of it, Alice Munro or Margaret Atwood are not on the list… actually no Canadians at all; representations of other cultures are few. But this is understandable, since it’s a U.S. based list. You might be interested in a couple of my posts back in December 2007 (29 & 31), entitled “To Read or Not To Read”. That’s the name of the latest (to that date) U.S. national study on Reading. There are some vigorous debates in the comments section which I think you’d find thought-provoking.
I’ve appreciated your comment and look forward to more of your views.
Thank you first for the informative, thoughtful, and entertaining post.
Reading lists are tricky things, but as Oh indicated – at some point shouldn’t students be taught to appreciate classics, capital “L” Literature, or however you want to describe them? I’m looking forward to reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but only after reading the entire Jane Austen catalog.
I understand the need to entice children to read in the competitive and distracting world of television, video games, Internet, etc., but I don’t think that necessarily means dumbing down the book selection.
I’m all for teaching our next generation to appreciate the classics, and I agree with you that the dumbing down versions or parodies may not be doing these classic works a favor. I think we’ll have to find more appealing ways to preserve our literary heritage, literature with the capital ‘L’ as you’ve put it. Good film adaptations of great books are definitely fulfilling that purpose. I really don’t mind the various attempts at producing Jane Austen’s work. PBS’s Masterpiece has also shown some excellent made for TV mini-series. I for one is an example of picking up the book to read after watching BBC’s new production of Bleak House. If not because of the excellent adaptation, I wouldn’t have ventured out to read the thousand-page novel. As for P&P, I sure hope people would adopt your stance: Read the original first before branching out to zombies and other spin-offs.
Thanks for sharing your view!
I love that you mention Masterpiece, because as soon as I finished watching watching Elizabeth Gaskell’s Crenshaw I went out and purchased the book. 🙂
I love looking at these lists. I try to find classics I haven’t read, and the list has many I still haven’t. Am I glad I read Ulysses? Damn straight! For one thing, it isn’t just about the book itself, which is amazing (and amazingly tiresome at times). It’s about the cultural references that are all around. I don’t want to be in the dark when those things appear in the newspaper (how much longer will we have those?), in other books, etc.
Sometime last academic year a discussion spontaneously erupted in one of our English faculty meetings (I don’t teach, I only advise students). One professor moaned, “Our students don’t read any more!” He was one of the older statesmen of the department. A new, younger faculty member who teaches film said, “Yes they do. What they read is different.” And the implication, everyone knew, was that they read text messages, Facebook posts, etc. It’s easy to feel disappointed and complain about it – I do a lot. Yet, what are the new ways they are examining the world?
I love seeing one of my students plop down at my desk with a big copy of Middlemarch or The Ambassadors. We always end up in excited conversation. Spanning the generations like that is incredible!
Thanks for stopping by in this busy and celebratory time for you. Your comment echoes one of the findings in a national study across the US on Reading: 15 to 24 year-olds spend an average 7 minutes reading on a weekday. I posted a discussion of that study on a couple of posts (Dec. 29 & 31, 07). The comments I received exactly represent what you have described here. Well, our younger generation may still be reading, but what. As a previous reader has commented, are the books with a capital L, those that have withstood the test of time and even across cultures still being read and appreciated by the next generation? I think that’s a key question. And often, they read literature for their courses. Would they choose to read them for pleasure? A question not just for our young I suppose.
This is a great list, and also a Pandora’s Box. So far, I agree with everyone else: the classics are important, they are being marginalized, our cultural referents are changing. I used to rage at the now-College Student’s high school reading lists for not going “deep” enough. The History department did a better job of exposing the kids to classics than the English department. So we struck a deal, my child and I: for every few “pop” books taken from the library, there had to be at least one genuine classic–now I am the one struggling to keep up! I believe that future generations will read classics for pleasure if they see us reading them for pleasure and more importantly, taking pleasure in them. It does no good for mom and dad to insist that Alex read Shakespeare, if mom and dad take no pleasure in his language themselves.
I guess the short answer is to read as widely and as deeply as possible. I am gratified to see the books I have read among the top 30, but also embarrassed about the ones I have not. And I know that when I pop over to Newsweek to print the entire 100 there will be further embarrassments. I also know that I would never have begun reading Proust if I had not begun blogging, nor would I have heard of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, or have sworn to read Kobo Abe. As with all choices, there are trade-offs. Perhaps the best we can do is to trust that there will continue to be good choices available. That is the bottle of hope rattling around at the bottom of the box.
Thank you for this.
Thank you for your thoughtful and reflective response. Blogging for me too, has brought new ideas and titles to explore, and prompted me to read something that I wouldn’t have considered reading, like… Shopaholic. You see, it’s not only the classics but various contemporary samples have entered my reading list as I’m more aware of what’s on in the current/pop culture scene through the blogosphere. However, so far I’ve been successfully avoiding zombies and vampires. With only 24 hours to spend in a day, and already cutting down on my sleeping hours, I’m justified to be a bit choosy, don’t you think?
And, congratulations on being the 1000th comment on Ripple Effects!
Wow! I’m honored!
As for the pop culture scene, yes I’m avoiding zombies & vampires too, but isn’t Shopaholic Steve Martin? (I love Steve Martin) Blogging will probably get me to peruse my first graphic novel, and there’s nothing wrong with lighter fare–sometimes it’s necessary (I’m a huge fan of mysteries & I know the Julie & Julia book is in my future). As a very wise lady commented on my blog recently, with everything that’s out there we have to be choosy. No justification necessary. Read what you want–and ENJOY it!!
That’s Confessions of a Shopaholic written by Sophie Kinsella. The movie adaptation stars Isla Fisher, Hugh Dancy… but not Steve Martin. I’ve reviewed them both and as I said on that post, the book works like a commercial break from serious and heavy reading. But for the movie… make another choice.
I’ve read most of the books on the list because they were required reading (I was an English Major after all). Now that I can read whatever I like I go through spurts, bouncing between modern literature and the classics. What I really seek out is a well-written book with a plot. It can be hard to find these days, which is why I like to search for new books on this blog!
Thank you for your kind words. I try to post whatever that interests me… and many of these items, books and movies, may not fall into the ‘classics’ category, but they sure can add variety and spice of life!
It really was interesting to comb through this list of one hundred, Arti. It didn’t take much analysis to turn up an intriguing fact or two.
Of the top 30 books, I’d read 13 and studied 8. The remaining 9, which I have not read, fell naturally into two groups. One included Woolfe, Austen, Eliot, Morrison and Wolfe. The other group included Achebe, Ellison, Marquez and Rushdie. The first group obviously is women, the second is from other cultures.
I think it’s a clear indication of the biases which still were in place when I got my formal education. I’m old (!) of course, so some authors hadn’t even written their books yet – like Rushdie. Nevertheless, there were obvious gaps that can’t be explained away so simply.
Of the remaining 70 books, I’ve read 33, studied 14, and have no exposure to 21. What surprised me was how pedestrian the list seemed, not to mention the fact that only twice did I find myself thinking, “Now, that seems appealing”. There were only four books on the list that I would take to the desert island with me. That doesn’t mean there aren’t worthy reads there – of course there are. It’s just that I didn’t find much on the list that would merit re-reading multiple times.
You made mention that some authors might be missing because it’s a US-based list. But that really shouldn’t make any difference! If the point was to focus on US authors, there are some truly glaring omissions.
I went back to double check the absence of any Asian authors. Unless you count quotations from Chairman Mao (I wouldn’t) there isn’t a single bit of Chinese or Japanese literature. That in itself is reason enough to join the Japanese reading challenge at Bella’s!
This was a fun exercise – thanks for making me think!
If I had the chance to start college as an undergrad all over again, I’d definitely choose to be an English Lit major. Seems like most of the titles are high school and college materials, so that means if I’d gone through four years, I’d have read many of them. That leaves out the rest for me to explore on my own. Some of these titles are more geared for study than pleasure reading… don’t think I’d pick up The Social Contract or Das Kapital to read for pleasure, unlike, say, The Great Gatsby or all the Austen works.
It seems you’ve spent some time exploring the whole list of 100. My point about US based refers to the readership, like the 10 book lists they used to compile this Meta-list are mostly from the US, a few from UK. Surely, If world literature is included, many of the titles we wouldn’t have recognized. I’m as puzzled as you are re. the only Chinese title on the list being Mao’s Quotations… what were they thinking? The Japanese Reading Challenge sounds like a good way to open NA readers to literary creations from other cultures.
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies – what is interesting is that two highly intelligent professor friends of mine have raved about this book! Just goes to show that even intellectuals can change over time!
The top 30 list is an intriguing one – I find it amazing that there are no books later than 1987 – you mean to say that there’s be nothing decent written in the last 22 years?
My belief is that while there’s no doubt that the list does have some classic books, times are changing and what once were considered classics, are becoming less relevant in today’s society. While Harry Potter, or Twilight are not classics, they do seem to strike a chord with the young reader these days, perhaps leading them to reach out to the older classics.
It’ll be interesting to see if the list remains unchanged over the next 50 years, or if some of the modern ‘classics’ writers begin to gain ground on the original classics.
Zombies and vampires sure are hot these days. So much the better for those who try to entice the young to read. I really hope as they soak in the fun of P & P and Z, they would also be lured to read the original, which, I believe does not only offer entertainment, but ‘truths’ universally acknowledged, insights and depth of field. Yes, it would be interesting to see what’s the next 50, or even just 20 years would do to the tastes and definitions of ‘good literature’.
Thanks for reading and sharing your view.