Last Friday, I met one of my newest clients for the first time. Amy Hanson, besides being the author of the glorious novel THE THIRD ACT (coming soon to editors’ desks around town!) is an English teacher. And lucky for her, she has say over what books she will teach. We chatted a bit about the fact that she teaches Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD to her high school students. As someone who would marry that book if I could, I was jealous of the teenagers who got the chance to read such a vibrant, thrilling, daring novel in class. I also started thinking a lot about what I read in high school and how valuable teaching current fiction can be.
Let me first say that I believe deeply in teaching the classics. I actually believe every student should have to read LORD OF THE FLIES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’m much less certain that I feel CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE GREAT GATSBY are as important as they’re made out to be. And sure, everyone should read some Shakespeare, but how about some August Wilson? Amy teaches Ibsen! That thrilled me to no end.
That aside, I remember the day my English teacher delivered copies of Richard Russo’s THE RISK POOL to our desks, and my mind blew open. Here was a novel that had been published in my lifetime. And there were things in it to learn? Mesmerizing.
As most people reading this can probably also claim, I had already found books I loved by this point. SONG OF SOLOMON and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE remain two of my favorite novels precisely because of when I first encountered them and how defining the first reading of each was to me. But it was that notion of great literature as a living, evolving thing that most struck me. Maybe I just wasn’t terribly bright, but until then it had never occurred to me to think of new books as potential future classics, or to approach them with the open mindedness that they might very well be brilliant.
So then the question becomes: which contemporary books should be taught? A few of the first novels I thought of would likely be terribly dull for teenagers or just be those kinds of books you don’t enjoy until you’ve experienced certain things: THE CORRECTIONS, BEL CANTO, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, GILEAD… Right now I’m leaning towards Bonnie Jo Campbell’s brilliant collection AMERICAN SALVAGE and Junot Diaz’s peerless THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.
What about you all? What contemporary work of fiction would you add to a high school curriculum? And if you are a teacher, what do you wish you could add?
Also! Don’t forget that Lauren and I are hosting an online book club. We’re reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, and the first Twitter chat will be April 30 on the first half of the book. Follow along with @JimMcCarthy528 and @laureneabramo. And check back here for updates on our progress!