A Dose of Reality in High School Reading

Over in The Washington Post, crack education writer Jay Mathews laments the absence of non-fiction on high school “required reading” lists.  “I am not dismissing the delights of Twain, Crane, Buck, Saroyan and Wilder,” Mathews writes. “But I think I would also have enjoyed Theodore H. White, John Hersey, Barbara Tuchman and Bruce Catton if they had been assigned.”

He’s right.  I can’t remember ever being assigned any non-fiction in high school, apart from in a journalism class where a wise teacher made us read any number of books of our choice by journalists (I chose Harry Reasoner’s Before The Colors Fade and Barbara Walters’s How To Talk With Practically Anybody About Practically Anything, both of which are long out of print.)

Independently, I read my share of non-fiction — usually books on pop culture, such as the history of films, television, theater, or comics (I remember drawing audible laughter from a biology teacher of mine when he turned over the book I had laid face-down on my desk to reveal The History of Little Orphan Annie) — but as far as required reading went . . . not so much.

Mathews isn’t certain what to make of this. Perhaps, he offers

…high school English departments’ allegiance to novels leads impressionable students to think, incorrectly, that non-fiction is a bore. That in turn makes them prefer fiction writing assignments to anything that could be described by that dreaded word “research.”

Could be.  Non-fiction, on the face of it, seems a bit too much like doing research for a term paper — which is about the only time students are required to pick up anything beyond the fiction shelves. Non-fiction seems intimidating, academic, and boring.  (True, sometimes it is — except most of the time, when it isn’t.)

Mathews closes by asking for suggestions on non-fiction books that high school students might like.  I think I’d try to keep things short — John Adams, for example, is one of the finest books out there, but at 750 pages, its length probably makes it unwieldly for your average class — and point students toward books like Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild or Stephen King’s On Writing.

What books would you recommend?

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3 responses to “A Dose of Reality in High School Reading

  1. Ernie Longmire

    If anything the heavy tilt towards fiction in school ruined fiction for me (other than textbooks the only nonfiction texts we touched were the philosophy titles we covered in Senior Humanities). Outside of genre stuff virtually all of my recreational reading is nonfiction.

    I suspect it’d be difficult to use much nonfiction in high school though—everything has to be “classic” (noncontroversial) or you can’t get it into the curriculum, and any significant title that was actually on-point for what’s being taught in, say, History, would be too in-depth for the class. (Oh wait, at least one English teacher covered Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”…kinda proves the point though as it’s hardly contemporary.)

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  2. For literary criticism, I’ve never seen anything more entertaining yet insightful as “The Power of Blackness” by Harry Levin. William Charvat’s book on publishing history in the US is great (and short) too. A lot of history is exciting and fun, so it’s a shame people think nonfiction can be stuffy or boring!

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  3. I don’t know if it’s what Jay Mathews has in mind, but I would be inclined to require some popular science writing.

    • James Gleick, Chaos
    • Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
    • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel

    These kinds of books are great casual introductions to rigorous subjects, especially for the student who thinks they don’t like math or science.

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