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Something There Is That Doesn't Love a List

By Carol Jago

In his poem "Mending Wall," Robert Frost explores our love/hate relationship with walls. On the one hand, we believe that "good fences make good neighbors." At the same time, we worry about who is being walled in and walled out. Book lists inspire a similar ambivalence. No sooner is one constructed than forces on every side begin marshalling arguments either to augment or bring it down. Personally, I think book lists make good reading.

However authoritative a book list pretends to be, most are actually quite arbitrary. Lists include and exclude texts based upon criteria that are sometimes unclear even to the list makers. When the Modern Library released its selection of the hundred best novels written in English in the 20th century, the list was met with outrage. How could James Dickey's Deliverance be better than anything Joseph Conrad ever wrote? How is it possible that not a single book by Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, Patrick White, Toni Morrison, or John Updike appears? Is Ulysses really the best novel written in the 20th century? So make your own list, said the publishers of the Modern Library, and then proceeded to provide a Web site where readers could create alternative lists. I like that response. Readers enjoy making lists of "best" books almost as much as they like poking holes in other people's lists. Besides, lists are fair game. The fact that they inspire challenges is part of their value. Criticizing someone else's list helps us refine our own criteria for what makes a book worthwhile.

California's Department of Education recently created a new book list, Recommended Literature: Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve. The list is descriptive rather than restrictive. It is designed to provide guidance for teachers, parents, and publishers about the kinds of books children should be reading. But no sooner was the site containing the new list up and running than criticism began pouring in. As one of the contributors responsible for creating the list, I feel compelled to defend our choices, but the teacher in me longs to scrawl across the top of the page in red ink, "Needs more work!" Though the list was intended to be a living document and a work in progress, without funding to support revision, it is likely to remain in its present state for some time to come. What is needed is a clear plan, with dollars attached, to provide for an annual review of the list, not only to delete out-of-print books and add new titles but also to take advantage of criticisms and suggestions about what should be on the list.

The California recommended reading list was designed to replace an outdated 1987 list. It was compiled, over the course of a year, by a group of approximately 25 teachers, librarians, and consultants from the Department of Education, who met every six to eight weeks in Sacramento. Members of the committee were nominated by professional organizations like the California Association of Teachers of English and the California Reading Association and were sorted into subcommittees by grade level: K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12. Noticeably missing from our group were university literature professors. They should have been among us.

It does not impugn the expertise of the five people sitting around the table in my working group for grades 9–12 to say that we were bound to make mistakes. Most embarrassingly, authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Fenimore Cooper, and Jonathan Swift are nowhere to be found. How can any list be considered authoritative without William Butler Yeats, Dante Alighieri, or Aristophanes? I don't remember ever making the decision not to include Eugene O'Neill or Abraham Lincoln, yet they don't appear either. And how could we forget Nobel Prize winners Isaac Bashevis Singer, Saul Bellow, and Joseph Brodsky? While Asian-American titles are well represented, Asian writers are not. The trouble was, so much depended upon so few readers. Early in the process, I suggested that we include the whole of the Penguin paperback classics catalogue. However, we only felt able to include books that someone at the table had read, which eliminated many great books. Then, too, every title submitted needed to be annotated by someone from the committee. How could we find the time to fill in the unfortunate gaps in our reading of the classics and write 2,700 short plot summaries? The practical problems involved in compiling a list to be published by California's Department of Education and carry the authoritative title "Recommended Literature" were sometimes overwhelming.

Tough Choices

One of the greatest challenges the group faced was determining the criteria for choosing books. The mandate that the list should be a "collection of outstanding literature for children and adolescents and reflect the quality and the complexity of the types of material students should be reading both at school and outside of class" left a great deal of room for individual judgment. What makes a book "outstanding"? The committee very much wanted to include contemporary and multicultural titles, particularly those of literary worth and likely to become tomorrow's "classics." Some teachers wished to weight the list heavily in favor of the kinds of books that their students loved—science fiction, romance, young adult titles. Others were adamant that the list needed to include a broad selection of classic literature. There was widespread agreement about the need for books with multicultural themes. But when we talked about including picture books at every grade level, discussions sometimes became heated. So did discussions about books in languages other than English. We listened to one another. We compromised.

We knew that many teachers were unfamiliar with literary classics and hoped that the list would offer ideas for their own reading as well as for classroom instruction.

There was strong support for the inclusion of young adult titles, books with teenage protagonists facing teenage dilemmas. My position was that any list for young people should include two very different kinds of books, serving different purposes in a reading program. One kind acts as a mirror—it reflects students' own experiences with peers, parents, sex, drugs, and school. Young people need stories in which someone who looks and thinks as they do handles the problems they face, for better and for worse. Apart from a lively book talk to interest them in picking up the volume, teenagers shouldn't need a teacher's help with "mirror" books. In fact, our penchant for discussions about foreshadowing, symbolism, and themes tends to ruin such stories for kids.

Students also need books that act as windows. These stories offer readers access to other worlds, other times, other cultures. Few young people think they have much in common with Odysseus until an artful teacher helps them see how we are all on a journey toward self-discovery. Few relate to Pip until they walk for a while in Dickens' fictional world and begin to understand their own great expectations. It's not a matter of either/or. Students need both kinds of books. Of course, teenagers need help looking through the window of most classic texts. At first glance a classic seems opaque, full of incomprehensible references and unfamiliar language. It is the teacher's job to clear the windowpane so that students can peer through—helping them learn to unpack inverted sentences, approach unfamiliar vocabulary, and pronounce characters' names. Often students need background information about foreign customs and cultures.

Many well-intentioned teachers have abandoned the classics for what they think will be more user-friendly titles. This is a mistake. Just because students can't read a book on their own doesn't mean they can't and shouldn't read it with help. Instead of choosing more seemingly "relevant" stories, we should be showing all our students how classic heroes struggled with the very same monsters we face today.

A Window Worth Opening

If I were in charge of the world, I would mandate that every ninth-grader read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. How better to help young people consider the dark side that lurks within us all? The short novel is rich and layered, unfolding like a mystery story. Teachers shouldn't be put off by the fact that many students would find the text difficult. I have stopped telling students, as I hand out books, that they are going to love this text and instead tell them that what they are about to read may at first seem quite hard. I even warn them that, at first, they may hate it. I promise to help them through and also assure them that in my professional opinion, they will ultimately feel that the struggle was worthwhile. Stevenson's first sentence describes the story's narrator, the dour Mr. Utterson:

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty, and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

I invite students to think about why it makes good sense that this tale of extraordinary horror should be told by such an utterly reliable narrator. I also help them negotiate Stevenson's complex sentences. We talk about his word choice and define unfamiliar vocabulary. Together we picture Victorian London in our minds' eyes. I call this teaching.

It seems wrong to me that schools should reserve the classics for honor students. Ignoring the elitism that such a curricular decision betrays, teachers defend a watered-down reading list for "regular" students by explaining to themselves and others that most teenagers simply can't understand the difficult vocabulary. Besides, they argue, today's kids won't read anything that is old. I worry that in our determination to provide students with literature they "relate to," we end up teaching works that students actually don't need much help with. And I worry that we do this at the expense of teaching classics that students most certainly do need assistance negotiating. This is not to suggest that we stop putting contemporary literature into students' hands, but only to urge that we teach in what Lev Vgotsky calls the "zone of proximal development." He wrote that, "The only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it." If students can read a book on their own, if it is a mirror book, it probably isn't the best choice for classroom study. Classroom texts should pose intellectual challenges to young readers. These texts should be books that will make students stronger readers, stronger people for having studied.

When an excerpt from Jack London's White Fang appeared on California's 2001 exit exam, many teachers argued that their urban students didn't have the background information to read the passage with comprehension. I would argue that few of us have been out in the Alaskan wild or had much experience with wolves. We acquired our "background knowledge" from books. If the only stories students are reading are ones set in their own time and their own milieu, how will they ever know the rest of the world? How will they know history? If we only hand students books containing words they already know, how will they learn new ones? Any recommended list of books worth its salt should include titles that challenge students and encourage teachers to help young people stretch.

Sins of Omission

It seems to me that a list succeeds or fails not on the basis of a book that's on or is missing but because of the range it suggests. Tim Rutten, the Los Angeles Times culture correspondent, is evenhanded with his praise and blame. He describes the California recommended literature list as

an imperfect but serious 2,700-book blueprint for "peace with honor" in the cultural conflict.... Earnest and obviously well-intentioned, the state's list is nonetheless diffident and so self-evidently tentative in insisting on where quality resides, that it is difficult to deduce the standards applied.

The committee paid careful attention to offering a balance of male and female authors, contemporary and classic texts, and to ensuring ethnic diversity. The list includes titles in five languages other than English: Spanish, Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Filipino. The selection committee's sins were of omission rather than commission.

In a provocative editorial for the Sacramento Bee, Peter Schrag decries the "omission of almost any of the great affirmative themes of American or Western history." Schrag points out the omission, other than books about the Japanese internment camps or the Holocaust, of stories about the main figures and events of World War II. He continues:

Look under independence, and there's a biography of Gandhi, but nothing about Thomas Jefferson; look under American Revolution or liberty and the only notable work is Esther Forbes' novel Johnny Tremain; Magna Carta and Churchill get you nothing.... The only view of Columbus is through the eyes of an Indian boy trying to warn his people about the white man.

I took Schrag's criticism to heart and came to a couple of tentative conclusions. The committee did not start out with any themes in mind. We thought in terms of books and genres—and this probably contributed to the limitation Schrag describes. Also, there was only one man on the selection committee, Armin Schultz, and his specialty was children's literature. Without stereotyping male and female readers unduly, it is my experience that women tend to read fiction more than nonfiction, and novelists tend to prefer social and psychological themes to the heroic themes Schrag may be thinking about. Once again, the committee members omitted books they had not read.

California's recommended literature list could be an awesome document. But to be so, it will need constant revision by teachers, scholars, librarians, parents, and students. Like the wall in Robert Frost's poem, a list needs constant attention. "The gaps I mean, / No one has seen them made or heard them made, / But at spring mending-time we find them there." A Web-based list should be easy to mend.

Good lists make good readers.

Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She is the author of With Rigor for All: Teaching the Classics to Contemporary Students (Heinemann, 2000).


Tim Rutten, "Weighing the Classics," Los Angeles Times, July 15, 2001.

Peter Schrag, "What Kids Should Read That the State Left Off Its List," Sacramento Bee, Aug. 22, 2001.

L. S. Vgotsky, Thought and Language, ed. E. Hanfmann and G. Vakar, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1962.