The book to read is not the one that thinks for you, but the one which makes you think. — Harper Lee
There's been a great deal of past discussion on Literary Lane on the subject of required reading. For the longest time, I believed it to be a terrible imposition inflicted upon the naive student by particularly vindictive instructors whose sole purpose was to enforce a love of literature into said student by way of hammer and chisel. At the time that I held that belief, however, I was not much acquainted with the true value of the thing, and my own assumptions were somewhat biased. It took several years for me to loosen my balled-up fists and accept the fact that reading for school does serve a purpose.
Before I reached eighth grade, the required reading to which I was exposed was of a wholly different nature than that with which I am now accustomed. I had reading assignments for school, but they generally took me no more than hour to complete, leaving the rest of my leisure time to volumes of my choosing. My literary intake flourished as a result. All that changed when I entered the tutorial at which I currently study, and I was introduced to an entirely new brand of required reading: that is to say, the sort that occupies your entire week. The number of pages I was expected to read jumped from twenty to two hundred and twenty. My time was no longer my own. And what's more, I didn't like the books I was reading! (Horrors, I know.)
I've copied out endless lists of the books I want to read in future. Dickens, Tolkien, Lewis, Austen . . . each name figures upon the page. And with the arrival of each new school year, I anxiously scan the book list that my mother prints out in search of familiar faces. If I'm lucky, I'll recognize two or three of the titles; they may even be replicas of those found in my own lists. But the majority of the titles are foreign to my eyes.
There's a difference between a student who rarely picks up a book that isn't a fluffy YA novel and a truly invested reader who seeks to learn and grow by testing his mental capacity with the books he reads. I'm not aiming this post towards those who have to be forced to read, balk at a book numbering more than a couple hundred pages, and utilize Spark Notes and Wikipedia for quizzes and essays. I know that most of you follow Literary Lane because you are avid bookworms in your own right. Assuming our own to-read lists contain classic works of fiction and other wholesome titles, is there still some value to be found in the required reading given by an outside source? Is there more we can gain from stepping outside our comfort zone?
Surprisingly enough, yes, there is.
Over the course of the past three years I've spent in my homeschool tutorial, I've been exposed to a number of titles I would have never encountered or considered on my own. Books like Rebecca, White Fang, The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, Watership Down, Frankenstein, and yes, even The Scarlet Pimpernel were all unknown to me. Surprisingly enough, some of these books (and others I haven't mentioned) are now treasured favorites with worn covers that attest to multiple readings. I could easily see myself enjoying the Victorian classics to which I frequently limited myself, but what pleasure can be gained from a book about a Siberian husky-dog or a tale of rabbits finding a new home for themselves? Is it possible for such a love to spring from an assigned list? I learned the answer to my skeptical question soon enough.
This past school year, my World Literature course not only opened my eyes to pieces of literature I hadn't read but didn't even recognize. Cry, the Beloved Country wrenched my heart, The Metamorphosis gave me eerie chills, Oedipus Rex fascinated me, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight spawned a greater love for Arthurian legend and the traits of chivalry and honor within me. Many of these works' authors used a new form of narration with which I was unfamiliar, effectively forcing me out of my comfort zone and opening my eyes to a whole new world of literature. I've been challenged to catch symbolism, foreshadowing, and allusions within even the most complicated web of text . . . and somehow, it's still worth it. Without setting aside my own desires for a time, trusting my instructor that these books, though unheard of to me, are revered for a reason, and reading the dreaded literature, my own perception of the written word would have remained one-dimensional.
It requires a measure of patience to accept the fact that a list of unfamiliar books will replace the ones I would prefer to read, at least for the current school year. Eleventh grade in particular is promising to be a challenge, as the realm of American Literature does not possess much enduring hope within its pages. Nonetheless, I've never regretted the choice to read these required books. Mansfield Park may be a more enjoyable piece to read, but that's not to say The Chosen and Watership Down weren't just as worthwhile.
And who knows? Maybe I'll find a brand-new favorite in some of the coming year's titles.