Required Reading

An Idaho state senator (admittedly half-jokingly), introduced a bill that would require every student in the  state of Idaho to read Atlas Shrugged, one of several tomes by Ayn Rand illustrating her philosophy of objectivism, or as she put in another book “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

Now we could have a discussion about the ways this book has been appropriated by the tea party. We could talk about the quality of Rand’s writing and how poorly she writes women, or the fact that most of her books could use to be 500 pages shorter. Or we could talk about the ways in which people who base their life philosophies off her writing are a lot like people who base them off the writings of L Ron Hubbard…

Okay, I’ve gotten that off my chest. Sorry.

What I actually want to talk about is this: Why have reading lists at all?

The basic purpose of a reading list as I understand it is to expose students to a variety of worldviews and styles of writing. Reading also helps in the development of good writing skills. But I think a more basic assumption is that without the list, the students wouldn’t read these books.

I admit my current reading list isn’t determined by the “classics”. I’m probably not going to pick up Thucydides or Erasmus anytime soon and I’ve read all the Shakespeare I intend to. (I’ll watch Kenneth Branagh perform it any day but that’s another story). I’ve already read two of Rand’s books (Anthem and The Fountainhead) and I doubt I’ll add her 1000 page treatise on John Galt to my list.

When I was getting college brochures the one I always remembered was the one from St. John’s University. The degree being offered was a Bachelor of Arts that was essentially a four year reading list which included The Bible, classic histories, and literary fiction. I made an effort to acquire as many of these books electronically as I could, hoping to read them. I haven’t yet, even though I recreated the list when I got my Kindle and access to even more public domain eBooks.

But I read every day. I’m currently reading a book on Christian views of video games (from a Christian Gamer’s perspective). I’m reading Scalzi’s serial novel, and Old Man’s War, Stephen King’s Under The Dome, and The Fractalist. Diverse viewpoints and styles.

I think more than requiring a particular book, schools should be encouraging a love of reading. And maybe that requires a pool of books to choose from, to at least get ideas in front of kid’s eyes. But what’s important is that they read at all. More than encouraging a love of books we should encourage a love of ideas, a thirst for for knowledge, for thought. Requiring students to read Atlas Shrugged will not force them to engage with the ideas therein unless they want to engage.

And if we need lists, I think we can trust teachers to make judgments without state mandates. We want our teachers to be well read, to be teaching to books they know and are passionate about. Students could suggest books that interest them as well. I understand the need for a curriculum. At the end of the day the class has to have something to discuss, and reading a common book is the often best way to achieve that. But there is more than one approach to that problem. If we really want students looking at all sides of an argument, then have half the class read one perspective, and the other half read another. I’m just spitballin’ here I realize, but there are a lot of great ideas out there that are more effective than everyone reading the same thing.

And frankly, as a writer, I don’t want anyone reading me because they have to. I’m not writing for everybody. Not everybody is going to agree with me. If I tried to write for everyone, then I would have very little of note to say.

I’m not saying you can’t enjoy a book you’re forced to read, but the experience is a different one, and one I think is less than reading a book because you want to, because someone you trust recommended it, or because you came upon it by chance.

What about you? Any books you think should be required reading?


Here’s my list of 10 books everyone should (but don’t have to) read:

Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Chaos by James Gleick

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman

Dune by Frank Herbert


Filed under Writing

12 responses to “Required Reading

  1. A Christian’s perspective on gaming would be a very interesting read – what’s it called?

    As for “required” reading, I’d have to go with The Catch in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – though be it still controversial, I think all teens should read it. Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse is really good one too. And Pablo Neruda’s Burning Patience is another favorite of mine, though reading it would depend on the reader’s maturity level rather than age.

    • I got it from NetGalley, coming out in April I think. It’s called “Of Games and God” by Kevin Schut. You guys might be hearing about it on the blog in the coming months. I’ve only read one of your three (Salinger) and I have to admit it didn’t do anything for me at the time, but I may have to give all of them a look at some point.

  2. Hm…have to disagree with you, Ben. I think students should be required to read certain books for the same reason they’re required to learn certain math formulas: they’re important.

    A love of reading is crucial, but it’s not enough. If you want to learn English, Ender’s Game is sufficient. But if you’re going to learn literature, Shakespeare is essential.

    By the way, I have read 6 of the 10 on your list. 🙂 I loved them all!

    • Yes, but how many math students just regurgitate the formula back on their math homework without any real understanding as to how it works, or an appreciation for why it’s important? Creating rote machines is not really imparting knowledge. I can think of maybe 3 books I was forced to read that I would not otherwise have read and ended up enjoying in my 4 years of highschool (in English class, not counting all the reading I did for history which was a far better class of books).

      I think Shakespeare is fine to read, but more fun to watch, and many of his plays aren’t worth either, including the ones most students are forced to read. We acted Shakespeare in the 6th grade and it was the thing we looked forward to for years. I saw Branagh’s Henry V in the 6th grade and loved it, but I still can’t stand Romeo and Juliet to this day. Pay attention to the damn plan! Of course she’s gonna look dead, she supposed to!


      Which 4 haven’t you read out of curiosity?

      • “Creating rote machines is not really imparting knowledge.” Good thing I didn’t suggest anything like that. 😉 That’s why I said “A love of reading is crucial.”

        The four I haven’t read are Chaos, Murder on the Orient Express, Lost World, and Guns of August.

  3. I think required reading does more harm than good for the love of reading.
    I’ve been a passionate reader for as long as I can remember. I love a lot of books, I’ve learned a lot from them… but I hated every book I had to read and can’t remember a thing about them now.
    I wish I’d got a copy of the essay I wrote for my final exam in German – the topic was something like, “how have books influenced your life”, and I relentlessly mocked all the books I’d had to read for school. (Got an A, too. :D)

  4. Even people who “love reading” don’t always love the right books. I don’t think there are really any “bad” books, but there are some that have very little intellectual value. So I think it’s nice to have required reading lists, just to open people’s eyes. Maybe I’m overly optimistic how well that would work, though. Anyhow, my list isn’t the best (I haven’t read all that many of the classics that others might consider necessary) but here goes:

    -Watership Down- Because bunnies. Oh, and because human nature, ect.
    -Call of the Wild- Because puppies, and because imagery.
    -Moby Dick- Because… they laughed at me! Who’ll be laughing now when you have to work your sorry, unappreciative way through it yourself, huh? Huh? …Sorry, just a sore spot there.
    Poetry- There’s a lack of any good poetry in the curriculum. Maybe it’s just my dislike for free verse and today’s poetry, but somewhere we need to show them the light of the various eras that speak so much more than the stuff that’s being shoved down our throats right now.
    The Illiad and the Odyssey- Maybe just in abridged form, but… excellent methods to appreciate something very different, something eye-opening.

    • Depends on how we define “bad”. I think there are plenty of books with little value (some of them “classics”). It’s a weird perspective as a writer to think of writers like Dickens as fellow writers. Some of these were guys who were paid by the word. Are they classics because they’re good or because they’re old? If they’re good, then they don’t need generations of forced readers to keep their work alive. I don’t think there are any “right” books either, and someone who is genuinely interested in reading isn’t going to skip over Shakespeare. (Even though Romeo and Juliet would have benefited from either of them actually listening to the plan. Skip that play and read one of the Henry’s or Richard III).

      For poetry I’m a fan of T. S. Eliot, both his writing and his thoughts on writing.

  5. Zeev

    A book that I think should be required reading is “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel García Márquez.

    The reason I think that there should be reading lists at all is that you can’t rely on students to love reading out of nowhere which is why you have to expose them to reading and hope that a certain book or genre catches their interest. That is why I think it’s important to introduce kids to different types of books so they can decide what they like to read.

    As far as your dig at Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, While I agree that Scientology is a funny religion with some crazy ideas, to me its not a lot different that believing that a god in the shape of a man, was born to a virgin, then sacrificed himself to himself to save us from judgment of our sins by himself. then this man/god rose from the grave (zombie?) and rose up to heaven. It’s no stranger to me than believing that god lives on the planet Kolob and takes his loyal followers to outer space (is that Scientology? I’m not sure). So making fun of other religions for supposedly “wacky” beliefs would put you on shaky ground.

    Anyway, Like I’ve said before on facebook I think that Ayn Rand should be required reading because it would expose school children to a worldview that in my opinion they don’t get exposed to in our public schools. They need to be presented with the failings of Objectivism as well as its strengths, but the discussion would be healthy to have in the classroom.

  6. stevewthomas

    I’m a “binge reader”, going for extended periods of time without reading and then reading maniacly anything and everything I can get may hands on — history, biography, “literary” fiction and commercial thrillers. . .One book I don’t see on too many lists is Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller. . .and very few books (none, actually) by E.L. Doctorow. . .Wonder why that is? I have no “guilty pleasure” titles but a wide variety of interests. Just finished Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great; how religion poisons everything (also Hitch – 22, his memoir). The British idea of stressing the classics is, by far, the best introduction to reading. .. but you really have to know your stuff and, sadly, most teachers of English at the high school level really don’t.
    Some readings in mythology wouldn’t hurt, either. As for Shakespeare, I find I get more from his work by reading aloud (not performing). The poetry of his plays is meant as “conversation” and should, I think, be read as such.

    Sadly, I was never (and still am not) a fan of poetry for its own sake. Sorry.
    Lists are, I also think, too subjective. . .I really see no need to limit what should or shouldn’t be read (unless, of course, you really want to interest a teenager in reading. Then all you have to say is, “Sorry, that book is “restricted” or “suppressed” or “condemned”. Then stand back and watch them go for it. Really good post, BTW, Thanks for the read.

  7. Read- it doesn’t matter what. Just read. There are whole worlds, universes even in the written page and everyone should be encouraged to do it more. Lists are interesting but I refuse to feel guilty because I don’t like Anthony Trollope and Thomas Hardy and find most of Dickens overblown and boring. I love finding new authors and entering a world through their eyes. Most of it probably wouldn’t impress a literature professor as great literature but hey that’s not why I read.
    Poetry is something of a mystery to me. I have poets that I love- Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, W.B Yeats but for the rest they are undiscovered country.
    And Shakespeare was written to be performed not read- that’s what plays are! The language, the poetry is meant to be spoken, given breath and life by people on a stage- stop trying to read it and go see it live the way he meant it to be.

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