BOSTON — The Monitor recently asked readers to send in their choices of five books American students should read before they graduate from high school. We received enthusiastic responses, ranging from Shakespeare and Dickens to the Confucian Analects to Alex Haley's "Roots."
Readers selected books for the insight they offered into history, religion, and current issues. The Bible was the overwhelming favorite. Shakespeare's works followed, with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn close behind.
Readers also wanted to make sure that students were well acquainted with their country's history, suggesting Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist Papers. In addition to Twain's contributions, readers urged students to read Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
Multicultural readings were also high on the list. Juanita Garciagodoy of St. Paul, Minn., named, among others, "One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Gabriel Garca Mrquez and the Tao Te Ching by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu. "Readers will be able to see many ways in which people construct sense, manage adversity, and derive pleasure in life," she wrote.
Of course, just plain good writing also directed the choices of our letter-writers. A family from Middleburg, Va., reads "Collected Poems" by A.E. Houseman "for the music of language," and Thomas Hardy's "Under the Greenwood Tree" "for eloquence and to illustrate how fine writing is written."
Robert Zani of Tennessee Colony, Texas, submitted his list considering "content-message and contribution to the English language." Best of all, wrote Mr. Zani and others, is a book which combines insight and literary mastery.
Of course, adults whose high school days are now past were not the only ones with thoughts on a reading list.
David Rea's third-period English honors class wrote in with its five choices: Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Twain's "Huck Finn," Shakespeare's plays, J. D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," and Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." The Laconia, N.H., 11th-graders feel these works will help their peers "recognize their moral nature and celebrate the values of friendship and loyalty," as well as understand "the importance of self-sacrifice."
Several readers shared insights on teaching good literature. "If a student just reads a book for homework, the words and ideas will usually be meaningless," wrote Suzanne Soul of Vista, Calif. "Teachers need ... to let students know these are not textbooks; they were written for the public, and adults read them for pleasure."
Charles Cohn of Folsom, Calif., "loved the devotion that [his] junior high teacher put into teaching a bunch of dolts the intricacies of story construction through [their] study of 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens."
Reading the right literature is important, readers said, but teachers need to inspire students to get the pages turning.
Literary Picks From Readers
These books received, in order, the most votes from Monitor readers.
Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, The Tempest, etc.)
Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
Canterbury Tales (Geoffrey Chaucer)
Democracy in America (Alexis de Tocqueville)
Gettysburg Address (Lincoln)
The Odyssey (Homer)
Uncle Tom's Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe)
1984, Animal Farm (George Orwell)
Bhagavad-Gita (sacred Hindu texts)
The Color Purple (Alice Walker)
Declaration of Independence
Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes)
History of the Second World War (Winston Churchill)
The Little Prince (Antoine de Sainte-Exupery)
Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garca Mrquez)
The Red Badge of Courage (Stephen Crane)
The Republic (Plato)
Walden (Henry David Thoreau)