Does High School English Need a Few New Classics?

Originally published April 2016

So, I’ve always secretly coveted The Biblioracle’s job.

The Chicago Tribune’s John Warner does a great job making book suggestions and I often find myself nodding in agreement. (P.S., John, I just picked up “The Nest” for the very same reason.) And his article today had me recalling a Facebook post I wrote just after Pat Conroy passed away several weeks ago.

It’s a discussion I’ve had with friends several times throughout the years—what are the classics to replace the classics in high school English? Or at least, supplement them with something written after 1952? It doesn’t help that I’m still haunted by my British Lit class—think Beowulf and The Canterbury Tales.

And, much like Warner discovered, my freshman daughter rattled off “The Best Of” list when I asked her what she read this year:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Othello
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns
  • Frankenstein
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

It’s not that these books don’t have value. Of course they do—we’re talking about Shakespeare and Twain for goodness sake. But, as my daughter so eloquently put it, “It’s just weird that high school students have been reading the same books for like, 100 years.” Which, I guess, makes me very old.

But there are newer books out there, equally deserving of attention and better still, easier for Gen Z to relate to. Which, in turn, makes reading more enjoyable. Hence, my reference to Pat Conroy. “The Prince of Tides” or “The Great Santini” are fantastic stories about family strife and trauma, and well-written to boot.

For some diversity in both author and culture, maybe “A Fine Balance” by Rohinton Mistry or “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” by Mohsin Hamid.

Mary Shelley is great, but what about Roxane Gay or Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro or Nora Ephron or Caitlin Moran?

And let’s not shrug off bestselling contemporaries like Stephen King. His novellas, “The Body” and “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” represent some of the best of what modern lit has to offer. Or consider John Irving. “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” are shoo-ins.

What did you read in high school? And what do you wish would have rather been on the required reading list?

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