The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Big Read’s Teenage Reading Survey, Part II

July 23, 2007
Washington, DC

While tabulating responses to our survey of teenagers' favorite books, I've been thinking what I'd do if I ever found myself in front of a teenage English class for a semester -- besides panic, that is. This is where my trusty know-it-all megalomania comes in handy. Here, drawing on all the classroom expertise that seven years as newspaperman and two as an arts administrator have afforded me, is my notion:

On the first day of class, I'd challenge each student to name a book he likes. No fudging, no sucking up, just any book. Gatsby, Danielle Steele, X-Men -- I don't care. Each kid's first assignment would just be to tell the class why they ought to read it too, thereby helping develop those powers of argumentation. Then the class votes, and whichever book polls highest becomes the first assignment on an otherwise blank syllabus. (So it's an alternative school, OK? Work with me.)

Say the class picks some Robert Ludlum thriller. Onto the syllabus it goes. The class reads it, I read it, the kid who championed it re-reads it. Over a week we talk about whether Ludlum creates suspense effectively or not, whether his characters sound real or don't, whether he nails the ending or doesn't, quite.

We now return the class to its regularly scheduled taskmaster, i.e., me. For Lesson 2, I suggest a slightly older, slightly better thriller. Some Frederick Forsyth, maybe, or Michael Crichton's Binary, written under the pen name John Lange.

Lesson 3: Something short, but with a little more meat on its bones. Maybe John LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Graham Greene's The Third Man.

Lesson 4: A vintage American mystery, like the Big Read's own Maltese Falcon.

Lesson 5: A classic proto-thriller, like Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda or John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Lesson 6: The original and still best geopolitical mistaken-identity thriller of all time: A Tale of Two Cities.

This way, we've taken them from Robert Ludlum, via Dashiell Hammett, all the way to Dickens in just one semester. Similarly, if the class picks Danielle Steele, maybe regress them through Gone With the Wind to Little Women to Henry James?s Washington Square, which is joining the Big Read in fall 2008. If they pick an X-Men comic, take them back through H.G. Wells to Edgar Rice Burroughs to Jules Verne. If they pick Harry Potter, walk them down the years past the Big Read's A Wizard of Earthsea to The Hobbit.

The point is, let them pick the first book on the syllabus, then follow it back through the genealogy of literature wherever it leads. This way they'll have a stake in the assigned reading, since they indirectly picked it. Start them cold with Dickens or Alcott, and they might not stick around for Ludlum or Steele.

Believe me, I know how impractical this all is. Feel free to file it under "unsolicited advice, passed along just to vent." But if somebody had put me on to Ring Lardner's You Know Me, Al when I was 8 when Jim Bouton's Ball Four was my favorite book, I would have discovered classic American literature a whole lot sooner?