The Highs And Lows Of High School Required Reading : Pop Culture Happy Hour Heading back to school is always a stressful but exciting time of year, whether you're doing it at home or in a classroom full of people. And we are always up to talk about books. Summer reading lists, class syllabi, there's no shortage of pages turned in the average school career. We're here to talk about them in this encore episode all about high school required reading.

The Highs And Lows Of High School Required Reading

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

Heading back to school is always a stressful but exciting time of year whether you're doing it at home or in a classroom full of people. And we are always up to talk about books.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Summer reading lists, class syllabi, there's no shortage of pages turned in the average school career. We're here to talk about them in this encore episode featuring our pals, Glen Weldon and Margaret Willison. I'm Stephen Thompson.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes. And we're talking about high school required reading in this encore episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Because we have Margaret on the line, we thought...

MARGARET WILLISON, BYLINE: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...We should talk about books. And then we got talking about high school required reading. Now, I don't know what other people were required to read in high school. And this is not just high school but also junior high, I think, should be included. I mean, because that goes back to - like, when you get into junior high, you get into your "Johnny Tremain"...

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: Sure.

HOLMES: ...Your "Animal Farm." I am going to open this conversation by making an argument - as Glen would say, I say - that high school required reading is the most evenhanded combination of positive and negative...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...Of all the things that people do in high school because for me, I took one trimester of contemporary literature when I was a senior in high school. And we read, for example, "Blood Of The Lamb" by Peter De Vries. That's a funny, interesting, weird book that kind of gets you into an actual contemporary literature kind of place. I also read a lot of stuff that I don't really care that I read, like "The Old Man And The Sea." I understand it's a classic, but I didn't get it. And I might get it now. If I read it now, I might get it now. But at the time, I was like, you've got to be kidding me...

WILLISON: I think...

HOLMES: Dude chases fish for, like, a gazillion pages.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: No. See, this is the problem. I think both "The Old Man And The Sea" and "Ethan Frome" are two of the most wronged books by English curriculum throughout this country because...

HOLMES: OK. Explain.

WILLISON: ...They are books that are very short that no one under 40 should ever read.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: Now, she's a librarian. She says this with a love of books. Now, I want to let Margaret explain why she says this.

WILLISON: Well (laughter) I feel like if you bring up this book in a group of any people of any age who've done required reading, you will get an impassioned, violent, hateful response against either one or both because they're, like, between 80 and 120 pages. But they are stories - in one case, "The Old Man And The Sea," it is an old man goes out, tries to catch a fish, fails, Jesus imagery. And the other one...

HOLMES: Spoiler alert.

THOMPSON: Spoiler alert.

WILLISON: Oh. Sorry.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: I'm going to spoil these extremely old books right now, everyone. Just be prepared. "Ethan Frome," it's like, old man, mysterious, very sad New England village, secret history led to death unsuccessfully with his one true love.

THOMPSON: This is great. I feel like I've read it.

WELDON: Yeah.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: This is better than Cliff Notes.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: This is - OK.

WILLISON: (Laughter) Yeah.

HOLMES: Go ahead, Glen.

WELDON: OK. So you can screw up a kid for life. This is the power you have when you create a high school reading list, because you have in your hand the power to determine whether or not they're going to see reading and books, and writing by that extension, as, A, something that is an object to be admired from behind glass that you must, you know, think about and put into context as if you're going on a very long but, perhaps, rewarding museum trip - or if it's a living thing, a conversation...

WILLISON: Yes.

WELDON: ...That you can join. A lot of the stuff I was required to read was intended to be from Column B, but it was actually Column A. So they push "Catcher In The Rye." You're thinking, it's a kid.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: You'll be able to understand this.

WELDON: They push "A Separate Peace." Good lord, that book bored me. And it was actually my first experience realizing what sentimentality is...

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Why something doesn't work. And I also just was like, just kiss already.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: Dang it, just kiss. That's what it is. I also think that there is - you know, kids are reading. Kids have always read. And what are kids actually reading for fun? They're reading "Harry Potter" - or, possibly, they were, maybe not anymore.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: But things like "His Dark Materials"...

WILLISON: They are still.

WELDON: ...The - "A Series Of Unfortunate Events," "The Hunger Games," these are books, if I can discern a through line, have an element of the fantastic. And when I looked at some of the high school reading lists - and I - you know, I did some searching around today to try to find them. And what was astonishing to me, Margaret, is how much those lists don't seem to have changed even in an era...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...Even 30 years later that there's still your "Animal Farms," your "1984s," your "Scarlet Letters," your "Babbitt."

HOLMES: Oh, "Scarlet Letter."

WELDON: But "Babbitt" - let's talk about "Babbitt" for a second. "Babbitt" is a searing satire of the sort of social striving of the 1920s middle class. And I heard that...

WILLISON: (Laughter) How relevant to today's youth.

WELDON: Exactly. I heard that and was like, oh, satire. And then it's like, ooh, boy, this book. Take that, the Jaycees.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: You know? Like, why is this - why is a (laughter) 14-year-old reading about this?

WILLISON: Right.

WELDON: And you can take that too far, obviously. Now I am going to come down. I'm going to say something very controversial, which is I think that kids should read Shakespeare. Yeah...

THOMPSON: Yeah.

WELDON: I said it. I said it. Call me Harold Bloom, if you will. But I mean, man, like, it shouldn't all be easy.

HOLMES: No.

THOMPSON: Right.

HOLMES: And I took a trimester of Shakespeare as well.

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: I'm really glad I did.

WELDON: It's skillset. First of all, there's a cultural component to...

WILLISON: Yeah.

WELDON: ...All these stories from Shakespeare...

HOLMES: Right.

WELDON: And to be able to read that poetry and to find it remotely rewarding is just something you have under your belt that you're going to need in life.

THOMPSON: One reason that I'm actually glad that I read Shakespeare in high school is that...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...At one point a couple of years ago, Trey Graham was saying, which character was - and I go, Mercutio. And I was right.

GLEN WELDON AND LINDA HOLMES: Yeah.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: And I felt this swell...

HOLMES: It was your moment.

THOMPSON: ...Of like, reading, like...

HOLMES: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Literary knowledge. And it was nice. And I actually loved reading Shakespeare in high school. The one I resented in the same class was Chaucer.

WELDON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: I found Chaucer very, very frustrating to try to wade through.

HOLMES: I just heard this sigh from Margaret. It's great not having Margaret in the room in only one way, which is that I get to hear her sigh on the mic.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And that's how I know how she's feeling.

WELDON: So, Margaret, are there new things that have been added to the canon, or are there things that...

WILLISON: Well...

WELDON: ...Or are we still talking about "Gatsby," an American tragedy? - God help me.

WILLISON: ...As your - what? - two-drink pony, highly literate, relatively young...

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: Right.

WILLISON: ...I can tell you that the books you're speaking about were the books that formed the majority of my high school literary experience. But that is 15 years ago now.

In terms of whether there's been a lot of movement since then, I think it really depends on which school you're looking at. So I don't think there's been a lot of movement in, say, your literature AP coursework. But if you're at a school like the school Linda went to, you know, a small Quaker school, I bet you're getting really advanced, really interesting classes. And I imagine if you're at a school like mine, you know, a magnet school, deeply enamored of its past in the 17th century, like, there hasn't been a lot of movement. And there will never be a lot of movement.

HOLMES: That's really interesting. I was thinking about this the other day. And I was thinking, well, look, I did not come into adulthood as a big, serious novel reader. I am a popular novel reader. I'm a - kind of a genre fiction reader much more than I am a literary fiction reader when it comes to novels. And I've been, you know, very open about that. There have been exceptions to that. But that is sort of how I came into adulthood.

And I went back, and I tried to think like, am I going to try to blame this on school and required reading and all that stuff? And up to a point, there is some truth to the fact that I came to think of it as work. But the other thing that is really - that I think was helpful for me to remember was to look back on the reading that I remember being recommended to me individually by teachers. And those things were important.

I think I was in fifth grade when the librarian gave me "Rebecca" and said, you should try reading this book. And I read "Gone With The Wind" not long after that. And she gave me "Rebecca" for me personally. And she was right. And it was a really good idea because it is a serious book. It's a different world than the one you live in and so forth. And the other one was a sophomore year teacher, English teacher, who told me to read Nikki Giovanni poetry and said to me, I think you would really like this. I think this would really resonate with you. And I loved it. And I still read it. And I still remember the effect of it when I first started reading it. So I think part of the problem with required reading - it's very easy to kind of dump on these canonical lists. You know, there's no substitute for something that is recommended to you with the understanding that not all kids need to read the same things - in an ideal...

WELDON: Right.

HOLMES: ...Universe, but that not every school has time...

WILLISON: Right.

HOLMES: ...To assign books to kids individually.

WILLISON: Well, and not every school has the funding for a good school librarian either.

HOLMES: Right.

WELDON: Sure.

HOLMES: Of course.

WELDON: I mean, I do think, though, that the literary fiction community's disdain for genre is either reflected in, or perhaps has its roots in, the high school reading list because most of these books that I'm - I - when I - all these books that I'm - I've came up across when I was doing this search belong to a certain kitchen-sink literalism, with no elements of the fantastic. I mean, yeah, OK, "Gatsby" had some imagery in it - got some green lights and ash heaps. But that's not what...

HOLMES: Sure does.

WELDON: ...I'm talking about.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WELDON: I mean, when I was hungering for - like, if you look at the books that I was reading for fun...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

WELDON: ...I was hungering for something beyond just, you know, people looking at each other and...

WILLISON: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Having conversations in drawing rooms. I was...

WILLISON: Yeah.

WELDON: ...Hungering for "The Hobbit." I read many times "The Silmarillion." Now, Linda Holmes, if you were bored by "The Hobbit," "The Silmarillion"...

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: ...Is the prehistory of Middle Earth. And it is like reading the King James Bible translated from the Finnish.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: It is like - it's like reading "Bulfinch's Mythology" with umlauts. It is stultifying.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: It's fusty. It's tweedy. I ate it up with a big spoon because it was...

WILLISON: Right.

WELDON: ...Not what I was getting from...

WILLISON: Yes.

WELDON: "...Catcher In The Rye" and "Huck Finn" and...

HOLMES: But again...

WILLISON: Yeah.

WELDON: "...Death Of A Salesman" and "The Jungle" - God, "The Jungle."

HOLMES: But again, this is specific to you.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: And that's what I'm saying, is, like, so much depends on the individual nature of the kid. And I don't want to just say, like, the answer is for everybody to just read what they want to read. I like the idea of challenging kids. I like the idea of pushing them to go forward.

THOMPSON: Glen, you mentioned "The Jungle." I read "The Jungle" and really was fascinated with it. And when I think about the books that hit me when I was in high school, I think about "The Jungle," I think about "Roots" and I think about, like, "Tale Of Two Cities" (ph). And like, what all of those books...

WILLISON: Oh, my God. I can't believe you said "Tale Of Two Cities." We'll have to talk in a second (laughter).

THOMPSON: OK (laughter). What all of those books have in common is that they are about past struggle. You know, I hooked into them partly as an angst-ridden teenager...

WILLISON: (Laughter).

THOMPSON: ...And in part out of empathy for what people outside of my world...

WELDON: Yeah.

THOMPSON: ...Had gone through. And I was - you know, I was an earnest high schooler.

WELDON: Sure.

THOMPSON: I think of those as very important books for people to read in order to contextualize contemporary human tragedy.

WELDON: Right. That's where we differ. You had empathy. I did not.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: And I think maybe the approach is the problem and not always the material. Glen, you touched on this earlier, which is sort of, like, are you in a museum? Or is it a conversation? Are you encouraged to approach these books decorously? Or are you encouraged to approach them boisterously? So like, you mentioned "Tale Of Two Cities," Stephen. "A Tale Of Two Cities," when I read it at 14, almost ruined Charles Dickens for me forever.

THOMPSON: Oh, wow.

WILLISON: Because you meet the main female character - you meet Lucie Manette - 50 pages in. And the first thing she does is faint.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: And you know, I'm not a fainter.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLISON: I just felt like hurling the book across the room.

HOLMES: Yeah.

WILLISON: I was furious with it. And my relationship to Charles Dickens improved infinitely in college, where I owned my books, and I was allowed to make sarcastic margin notes...

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

WILLISON: ...To my heart's content. So as soon as I could talk back to him, like, everything was fine. Chuck and I - we've worked it out.

THOMPSON: (Laughter) Chuck.

WILLISON: "Great Expectations" is one of my favorite books. I couldn't do it where I was just supposed to be receiving these words and being awed by them. I had to have the sense that I was allowed to go in and monkey around and have my own opinions and feelings, too, which I did not really get in high school.

THOMPSON: See - right.

HOLMES: Yeah, that's a great point. That's a great point.

THOMPSON: Yeah, and if I had done that, I just would have, like, told Chuck to stop beheading people I like.

WILLISON: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah. And I think also, you know, you can't go through a conversation about this, quote-unquote, "canon," without acknowledging that one of the issues with it is always inclusiveness of different kinds of people...

WILLISON: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...And people with different kinds of experiences. And that, you know, one of the things that gives the canon, with some people, a bad reputation, is that it has tended to be very white, very male place where only certain experiences really are welcome and really are reflected.

WELDON: But aren't more high school librarians open, at least notionally, nominally, to things like YA and comics?

WILLISON: Well, you're talking about - librarians and curriculum are two very different things.

WELDON: Yeah.

WILLISON: You know, the person who recommended "Rebecca" to Linda - that's not necessarily the person who was teaching her English class. And the considerations that that person has to take into play when constructing their syllabus is totally different.

HOLMES: Right.

WILLISON: But yeah, like, high school librarians are going to be giving kids graphic novels and YA.

HOLMES: Right.

WILLISON: And I'm sure a lot of high schools are also assigning them in curriculum. Rainbow Rowell, our friend, has had her book "Eleanor & Park" taught in a number of high schools. So many English teachers are assigning YA, graphic novels, a wider range of materials. But I think the backbone of it is, as it always will be, white dudes.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOLMES: Do you feel like there's any progress on that front, as somebody who observes this a little more closely than I do? Do you feel like the diversification of that school-age canon has changed any?

WILLISON: We can speak even just to my experience. So I was assigned reading in 10th grade - "Not Without Laughter" by Langston Hughes, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston and "The Joy Luck Club" by Amy Tan. Those may or may not have been on curriculums when you guys were in school. And I can name them all so quickly because they were really immersive, delightful, enjoyable reading experiences for me.

HOLMES: That's more what was going on for me curriculum-wise once I got to college.

WELDON: Yeah.

WILLISON: Right.

HOLMES: I read "The Bluest Eye," and I think I read some other Toni Morrison as well.

WILLISON: I definitely read Toni Morrison in my literature AP class as well. So there's definitely been - the whiteness of the canon has been diluted. The maleness of the canon has been diluted. And then in addition to that, I think there is a lot more openness to assigning materials written specifically for teen audiences. Like, Walter Dean Myers Dean is a huge school reading item for high schoolers in schools where they're very conscious about trying to give kids mirrors of their own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: Well, we want to know what you read in high school. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @pchh. And we'll see you all tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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