The New Canon
In a few decades, high school students will be reading these novels right alongside ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Scarlet Letter.’
By Rachael Seamands, IUPUI
If you think you’ve read all there is to read in Mrs. Smith’s Advanced Lit class, you haven’t even scratched the surface.
Your high school English curriculum probably consisted of novels like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” among others. Shakespeare’s works, either his plays or poems, no doubt stuck themselves here and there during your four years of secondary education as well. Every genre has at least one well-known novel to its name, such as the dystopian-themed “Brave New World” or the epitome of satire, “Animal Farm.” Heaven help the English major who hasn’t read the coming-of-age favorite, “The Catcher in the Rye.” Once you get to college, the assumption is that you are familiar with these high school literature staples.
However, there are many novels that are unlikely to make it onto the average high school curriculum. Whether the book didn’t fit the theme of the class, or there simply wasn’t enough time with the mountainous novels that are “Jane Eyre” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” certain books get cast aside in favor of others. High school is the time to read and learn about basic concepts to prepare students for future endeavors, while college is a time for finding yourself and working toward a degree of your preference. However, choosing an area of study unrelated to literature doesn’t mean the buck must stop with “The Scarlet Letter.” Reading literature is beneficial to everyone, because it builds vocabulary, encourages critical thinking, teaches cultural value and opens the mind to new thoughts and ideas.
Here are six novels that every college student should read beyond the expectations of high school literature.
1. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”
First and foremost a dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic and totalitarian state in future America suffering from alarmingly low reproduction rates. As a result, handmaids are placed in homes of high society couples who are unable to conceive. The novel has been banned in many schools nationwide, as well as internationally, due to its overwhelming misogynistic themes and explicit sexual and profane content. The author, Margaret Atwood, believes this to be the precise reason the novel should be read.
According to Atwood, it is important that her readers realize that the novel is not science fiction, but rather speculative fiction, because she believes the content of the novel could eventually come to pass. “This is a book about what happens when certain casually held attitudes about women are taken to their logical conclusions. I believe…that a novel isn’t simply a vehicle for private expression, but that it also exists for social examination,” she said.
In a time where women are once again rising up to fight for their rights of equality, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a very appropriate coffee shop companion for men or women looking to see what could come of such treatment of women, exaggerated though it may seem. Stranger things have happened—after all, Tom Clancy’s novel, “Debt of Honor,” predicted a 9/11-like attack five years prior to the day.
2. “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” by Tom Stoppard
“We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that our eyes once watered.”
Props to you if you recognize the two names in the title of this satire. Yes, they are from “Hamlet,” and I know I shoved Shakespeare in with the names that you read in high school, but bear with me. The play follows the shenanigans of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two minor characters from “Hamlet,” as they deal with the sequence of events surrounding Hamlet’s story and get into their own trouble behind the scenes. While the two engage in several absurd misadventures, they are ultimately attempting to understand the meaning of life, a question mark that eludes everyone.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are hopelessly and utterly confused about the world around them, perhaps more so than most people, which helps to illustrate the idea that the complete randomness of life, in conjunction to not knowing the true intentions of other people, leads to a seriously petrifying bewilderment. Stoppard utilizes satirical humor to present the all-to-familiar conundrum, because in all actuality, truly considering why in the world human beings exist can be terrifying. The comedic ways in which the two go about their attempts to understand help to show the great mystery in a lighter sense, and leaves readers with a new take on a Shakespearean classic.
3. “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion
“A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty.”
Joan Didion shares a very intimate piece of her life in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” narrating her reaction to her husband’s untimely death and her small family’s experience in the year afterward. The book, while largely about the emotional and physical process of her grieving, as well as her daughter’s, also incorporates psychological and medical research on her husband’s illness and grief itself. Readers see Didion put herself through further suffering as she discovers painful truths about her husband’s death, including the fact that he knew he was dying before she did, and that she might have then wasted the little time he had left with very un-meaningful days.
Prior to adulthood, or at least the introduction of adulthood in college, the hardships of life are often muted by parental figures doing what they can to shelter you from pain. Death is, of course, as sure a thing as life, and both are unstoppable forces of nature. The process of grief is not the same in everyone, and Didion’s own tumultuous spiraling in the year after her husband’s death as described in the novel does not necessarily mirror the way in which everyone else would react. The novel is important because it discusses what it is to be empathetic, compassionate and human, no matter the consequences.
4. “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy
“If trouble comes when you least expect it, then maybe the thing to do is to always expect it.”
For those of you fortunate enough to have had a high school English teacher include this on your curriculum, feel free to skip to the next suggestion as I share this literary icon with everyone else.
Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” documents the long journey of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of remaining life, should any exist. The hardships that the two share over the course of the novel are not to be downplayed, such as the father’s knowledge that he is slowly dying and the various miscreants the two encounter on their journey. “The Road” is one of the most poetic novels that I have ever encountered. The balance of beauty and violence in this novel is, debatably, its strongest feature. The sheer perseverance of the father and son in the face of countless obstacles is a shining example of the resilience of the human spirit.
Underlying themes shared in the novel are countless, including familiar concepts such as mortality, love, good vs. evil, varying versions of reality, forgiveness and compassion. All are, of course, important topics for consideration as college students mature and find their way in the world. The relationship between the father and son itself is one of the purest form, and illustrates for readers a familial bond that is deep and purposeful, especially as the father prepares his son to live on after he himself has passed. Note that although the story itself is beautifully written and should be added to your personal literature inventory, it isn’t an easy read. “The Road” will challenge even the most steadfast of readers, but it’s definitely worth it. In other words, keep the tissues nearby.
5. “Oranges are not the Only Fruit” by Jeanette Winterson
“I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.”
“Oranges are not the Only Fruit” is a coming-of-age novel about Jeanette, a young girl adopted by a group of evangelists from a Pentecostal church in England. After a few years in the church, Jeanette develops feelings for another girl and as a result, Jeanette’s mother and members of the church subject the two girls to a series of exorcisms. The novel contains subject matter that is personal to Winterson, as it is semi-autobiographical and based upon her own experiences growing up. “Oranges” has been praised for its accessibility for readers dealing with confusion about their own sexuality.
However, Winterson has said that she disagrees with those calling “Oranges” a lesbian novel. “It’s for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers,” she said.
She’s absolutely right. The novel elicits a feeling of being limitless and free to follow your heart, consequences be damned. Without question, the importance of being true to yourself is incontestable in conquering this thing called life. Messages like this from modern classics are more accessible in current society than, say, Elizabeth Bennet’s mother trying to sell her daughter to the first living and breathing man to come along a la “Pride and Prejudice.”
6. “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho
“Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.”
Coelho’s “The Alchemist” is the story of a man traveling through Egypt who meets many different people along the way as he becomes one with the desert and learns about the “Soul of the World.” The book is perfect for young people with a traveling spirit who are looking to see the world. The novel encourages readers to realize that being unsure of yourself is okay as long as you never give up on yourself. A continuous theme throughout is that of the “Personal Legend,” or the process of following your own blessing.
The “Personal Legend” theme encourages readers to be honest with themselves, to discover small talents within themselves, to make choices, to follow their intuition and to not be afraid to change their mind. These ideas, among the others that the theme embodies, are ones that translate to the journey of students through college and afterwards, which is what makes the novel so important for this particular age group. “The Alchemist” also encourages constant learning, an idea which aligns itself directly with continuing to read literature beyond what is required.
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