So books are not dead.
What are you reading? I thought I’d share some of the books I teach to my high school sophomores. They just happen to be books I love.
My “regular” sophomores read “October Sky” by Homer Hickam in the fall. It’s a memoir — a true story about how Hickam grew up in a poor, coal mining town in West Virginia where a football scholarship was the only way to get out of becoming a coal miner and football players were the most highly-regarded students at the high school. That is, until Hickam started building rockets with a few of his misfit friends. They end up — by the power of their brains and perseverance — winning the national science fair. It’s a tribute to brains over brawn, well written and full of colorful detail about life in rural West Virginia.
Then there’s the novel “Flowers For Algernon” by Daniel Keyes. No matter how often I read this book, I cry at the end. It’s a tale of a mentally handicapped man who undergoes an experimental operation to make him smart. It brings up the issue of whether intelligence equals happiness, or even makes one a good person. I won’t give away the ending. It is told in diary form, so the reader can easily see the protagonist’s increasing intelligence due to the operation and the joy and heartache it brings him.
Right now, my “honors” students are reading “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines. It’s a piece of historical fiction set in the 1940s in Louisiana. An African American man is convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury. During his trial, while begging the jurors to be merciful, his defense lawyer refers to him as a “hog.” His godmother, who raised him, is very distressed by this, and asks the teacher in their rural community to visit him in jail and teach him to meet his inevitable electrocution like a man with dignity, not like a hog. It tugs at my heart every time I read it.
Of course we also read timeless plays by “Shakespeare: Julius Caesar” for the “regular” students and “Hamlet” for the “honors” classes. We will finish the year with Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451,” a dystopia where books are forbidden. At first some students think this would be great because by the end of the school year (if not before) they are tired of reading, but by the end of the novel they hopefully realize that a society without books — that desires only superficial “happiness” — is not a society to be wished for.
My favorite book for all time — you will think, perhaps, that as a columnist and teacher my taste should be fancier — is “To Kill A Mockingbird” by Harper Lee. We have the freshmen read it each year and I miss the days when I taught freshmen and got to read it with them. Perhaps it’s because the hero of the story is a lawyer, and it’s about seeking justice. If you never read it — or even if you read it in high school but haven’t read it in a long time — it’s worth reading or picking up again.
This is probably the wrong time to suggest reading books. After all, it’s almost spring and you will want to be outside soon, enjoying the long-wished-for sunshine and warmth. But there’s never a bad time for a book, and I just thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. I’m lucky I get to read them again and again with my students.
Debbie Leffler is a free-lance writer who lives in Norwalk. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.