For the first time since I began teaching AP English Literature and Composition back in 2008 my reading list is the same for two consecutive years. I’ve finally found a year-long schedule of longer works that I really enjoy, that are of high literary merit, and that the majority of my students don’t complain about (too much). So I thought I’d share.
How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster — This is the first book my senior students read during the summer. It is our bible, the source they must return to over and over until they know how to recognize a symbol, an allusion, and they must absolutely know what intertextuality is.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — This is also read during the summer, after the Foster book. It’s a good novel for summer because it’s pretty short, not so complex, and just easy and fun to read. It also clues them in (or should) on how seriously I am about books.
The Call of the Wild by Jack London — The first thing I’ll hear is that they read it in 8th grade. Fantastic. You know the story. Now you’ll read it looking for stages of The Hero’s Journey and for elements of Naturalism, Romanticism, and Existentialism. It’s a good first novel for class reading because, again, it’s pretty simple and straight forward, and short. You can’t go too heavy the first weeks of school.
The Bible — I assign selections that will be alluded to in novels we’ll be reading later on, mostly, but I’ve found that modern teenagers often have a serious lack of knowledge of the most well-known Bible stories, such as Adam and Eve, Noah, the Exodus, etc. And hey, it’s fun to point out that in Genesis Chapter 1 God makes man and woman together, but in Chapter two he puts Adam to sleep and makes Eve out of one of his ribs. The kids also like Sodom and Gomorrah and what Lot and his daughters do after.
Dracula by Bram Stoker — Now we’re cooking! We start this in early October. (We started it yesterday, in fact.) It’s our first long novel, and forms the basis of the research essay the College Board requires I assign for the year. I give each student a different prompt related to the book. It ranges from a biography of Stoker’s literary career to the roles of women in Victorian England as portrayed in the novel to the influence of Count Dracula on the modern goth sub-culture.
Oedipus Rex by Sophocles — Because ya need a little Greek and I love seeing the girls’ eyes widen when they realize what is meant by “she’s a twice-plowed field.” It’s also short and fun to assign parts and read aloud as a class after so many weeks with the vampires.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston — The only female author and the only ethnic author on my list. Not by plan; it just happened that way after trial and error. I tried novels by three other women and they were not successful. This one, though … Wow! It’s become one of my favorites. I fell in love with the opening paragraph and was never disappointed. It’s just an amazing novel, and it sends us off on Christmas break.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — When I read this one in high school I never imagined I’d actually teach it. I thought it was pretty boring. Now, I love it. Most of my students do, too. In fact, several of them go out and buy their own copy later. The more I learn about Fitzgerald’s method, the more I appreciate how much he packed into this short novel.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck — This is the backbone of the class, one of my favorite novels, one of my favorite authors, and I seriously get almost giddy when it’s time to begin this one. Fortunately for me, both the sophomore pre-AP English teacher and the junior AP Language teachers are also Steinbeck fans and teach East of Eden and Of Mice and Men, respectively. Most of my students like Grapes, or are wise enough not to let on that they don’t until the year is almost over.
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams — Another light, short play to read together as a class after the brutality suffered by the Joads. The kids like this bittersweet story and we have a good time talking about Tom Wingfield’s choice, not to mention his crazy mom and sad sister.
Othello by William Shakespeare — Because it’s AP Lit, we have to have Shakespeare. If we’re pressed for time because of snow days earlier in the year or something else has set us behind, this is the one that gets cut from the list. That’s mostly because of where it falls. At this point I’m really more interested in practice exams and timed writings, but if there’s the time to do it, we’ll read Othello along with the Shakespeare Appreciated audiobook.
The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty — They tell me all year that this is the book they want to read. So I give it to them a week or so before the AP Lit exam and tell them there won’t be any quizzes until after the AP test. Yeah, but senioritis has set in and few of them actually read it. The ones that do, though, love it. While they read that we look at the role of the devil in Western culture and literature and I share some of my favorite rock-and-roll music and let them look for satanic influences.
Then they graduate and I send them off into the wide, wide world. Many of them come back to visit, at least in those first couple of years after high school.