Staff Recs: Books We Should Have Read in High School

If you hated your high school humanities classes, the Arts Desk is here to give recs so that you can redo your education the right way.

Cover art for "Season of Migration to the North" by Tayeb Salih. (via Facebook)

“Romeo and Juliet.” “The Catcher in the Rye.” Ernest Hemingway. Jane Austen. Classic titles and names that filled our high school syllabi and glazed our eyes over. But the Arts Desk has decided to revisit humanities classes to see if we can enliven and diversify assigned texts with favorites of our own. While we recognize some of our choices may not be underrated in general, they have not been explored well enough in high schools.

“Season of Migration to the North” by Tayeb Salih
When I was in high school, I read a lot of books from a group of authors that can be referred to as “dead white men.” This selection included works such as “Of Mice and Men,” “The Great Gatsby” and “Lord of the Flies” — books that feature white, male protagonists written by white, male authors. Like many before me, I found this troublesome. More troublesome still were the gross misrepresentations of other cultures by said “dead white men.” On this I speak, of course, about “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, the British feel-good novella about how Africans aren’t so different from you and I, despite their dark complexion. This, to my high school English teachers, was a rich example of African literature that focused on the grave impact of colonialism. However, it wasn’t until I became an English major and read “Season of Migration to the North” that I realized how wrong that sentiment was. I had no previous exposure to African literature that was written by someone from the continent and had little to no knowledge of the prolific literary tradition that countries like Sudan — as in the case of “Season of Migration to the North” — carry on to this day. So do yourself a favor and rewrite the history your AP English teacher tried to shove down your throat; read the book Edward Said described as one of the great six novels in Arabic literature. Need a push? Here’s a teaser: “I want to take my rightful share of life by force, I want to give lavishly, I want love to flow from my heart, to ripen and bear fruit. There are many horizons that must be visited, fruit that must be plucked, books read, and white pages in the scrolls of life to be inscribed with vivid sentences in a bold hand.” — Claire

“Mahabharata” by Vyasa
We have spent decades studying Greek literature like “Odyssey” and the “Iliad” in school, but I think it is time high schools travel even further east and delve into an even more expansive epic: the Indian tale “Mahabharata.” The heroic narrative tells of a war between two groups of cousins, the Kauravas and the Pandavas, and is about seven times longer than the aforementioned Greek epics. The Indian epic is one of the most important pieces of literature in India and the world, an endlessly captivating story about brotherly ties and the highs and lows of war. Not only could the story be used as an educational tool to analyze themes of family, corruption of power and the suffering of war — we love breaking that down in Shakespeare, right? — but it is also a gateway into a different culture and religion that many high schools rarely touch upon. Not to speak for all high schools, but at mine, humanities classes were often taught through a Eurocentric lens and any reference to religion was always from a Christian perspective. Teaching the “Mahabharata” would present an opportunity for schools to diversify their curriculums. Moreover, since it is so long, teachers probably wouldn’t have to worry about filling up class time because exploring this thoroughly could easily take a whole year.Guru

“Autobiography of Red” by Anne Carson
Anne Carson, a poet, classicist, translator and Distinguished Poet-in-Residence in the NYU Creative Writing Program, is known for writing outside the box. Her translations of Sappho, Euripides and other ancient Greek writers are acclaimed for their unconventional renderings of classical works in danger of stagnation, but her formal experimentation comes through most forcefully in her poetry. “Autobiography of Red,” like much of her other work, is deeply indebted to the classics — in this case, the myth of Herakles. It centers on a minor character, a red-winged monster named Geryon, slain by Herakles. Carson recasts the tale as a love story between two teen boys, also named Geryon and Herakles. Geryon still has his wings and red skin, but the story is otherwise set in a time and place resembling present-day America. The slim book, subtitled “a novel in verse,” traces Geryon’s life, from his childhood sexual abuse at the hands of his brother to his adolescent love for Herakles and beyond. It occupies a space somewhere between poetry and prose — the novel makes for a gentle introduction to the possibilities of genre experimentation, but one that’s deeply moving. It’s not a hard read, but it’s enormously rewarding. — Alex

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“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff
“This Boy’s Life,” is exceptional and is enough to change any young person’s relationship with literature. I recommend this whenever a friend wants to get in touch with his Renaissance side and get into reading. A few of the anecdotes are funny and odd enough to make you wonder how lucid Wolff’s memory was in writing this memoir. Wolff’s childhood is tumultuous enough to pity him and compelling enough to envy him. For me, this has always been a book that covered a coming-of-age correctly. Wolff is from a near-extinct generation of young men, from a time when even authors would go from the scouts — at their stepdad’s direction — to war in Vietnam. Still, I have yet to meet someone for whom the book is ineffectual. If “This Boy’s Life” isn’t telling the story of your childhood, then it’s telling the story of the childhood you wish you had.  — Dante

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