In the last few days of summer vacation, my house was quiet and still. The hours of silence were not due to a change in medication, a new meditative approach nor to a chaos management plan. There were summer reading lists to complete!
My son, who was only asked to read two books, one fiction and one nonfiction and to fill out a simple planner was struggling. I don't think he had held a pencil all summer. He was fine with the fiction book, he likes to read and had carried novels back and forth from camp and always has a paperback under his pillow. But, you would think the nonfiction book was going to kill him. He was creative in his procrastination, though. His room is cleaner than it has been in months.
"Rebecca" by Daphne du Maurier, "1984" by George Orwell and "Atonement" by Ian McEwan. She has British Literature next year. When I was her age, I too, read "1984." It was, however, actually the year 1984.
I had an inspired English teacher in high school (we called it English, then). Mr. Gunderson assigned us texts such as "Walden," "Romeo and Juliet," "A Farewell to Arms," "A Tale of Two Cities." And in his class, they were relevant and important. I'm sure that some of the kids didn't appreciate "Wuthering Heights" or didn't come to love poetry by learning to read it aloud while seated alphabetically in rows of metal and Formica desks. But, in Roger Gunderson's English classroom, literature mattered. We were trained to analyze, compare and to respect not only the words, we learned that through language, we could experience the world through the imagination or interpretation of the author.
My parents have always read. I remember my father, at the beach on a striped canvas beach chair folding back the wrinkled pages of paperbacks with colored edges. "Chesapeake" and "Jaws," bestsellers. My mother, who woke early to study the bible also read nonfiction, and more than once I came across books with titles as, "The Strong Willed Child." Me? We were readers, but we weren't really intellectuals. And, that was fine. We were vigorous Californians, industrious, outdoorsy and healthy.
My parents divorced when I was an adult and my father decorated his living room with books he shipped home from a library basement book sale in Stockbridge, Mass. They were chosen for their appealing covers, initially.
Then, one rainy afternoon, after he had given up his golf club membership, he started to read them. He began with Dickens and he would call and often quote something wonderful and pithy that only Dickens could write. He moved on to Winston Churchill and hasn't stopped reading since.
He says he understands now the appeal to literary fiction. And while he still runs marathons, he now appreciates reading old books, and tending a collection of English roses.
My daughter's reading list inspired me to consider which books really matter. I was jealous that she was reading four such wonderful books for the first time. There are great books being written every day, so why is it so essential we experience the old classics?
She called me from her grandparents house and answered the question for me. "Now I know why everyone says, `Big brother is watching." Exactly. We share a common cultural reference, we explore ideas that are as relevant today as they were at the time they were written. Literature matters because thinking matters, feelings matter, love matters and the journey that is life will always be relevant.
I asked my Facebook friends which books they believed should be required reading.
They reminded me of many great books that every high school student and adult should read. They were careful to stress that we need to move beyond the canon to include female writers and writers of various experiences. As suggestions were posted, I was reminded me of a book I have loved and learned from. I am better-informed and more aware of myself because I have been exposed to these books.
Krista Richards Mann is a Westport writer, and her "Well Intended" column appears every other Friday. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.