Notes on Summer Reading in Rhode Island
Last evening, during a visit to a bookshop, I took a quick look at the table labeled “summer reading”. I am not 100% sure that “summer reading” referred specifically to a high-school reading list, but two of the titles on the table were The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, and I doubt that these books would place near the top of anyone’s summer recommendation list in the absence of their reputation as books that students are supposed to read. Also, I’ve never understood why high-school English teachers believe that the literary theme of the misanthropic jerk (in Salinger, expressed directly through the main character, in Vonnegut, through the author’s tone) is essential to the summer reading experience.
If there is any momentum for replacing Vonnegut with something good from the science fiction genre instead, I would like to recommend Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by K.W. Jeter (known best as the book that the movie Blade Runner was based on, and a very good novella in its own right).
Anyway, following from the eminently reasonable assumption that no one has read Salinger or Vonnegut in at least the last 20 years or so because they actually wanted to, suggesting that the titles on the summer reading table were indeed recommendations for students, I was a little surprised to see A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn included — which must mean, more than anything else, that I’m a little behind the curve, on how history is being taught in our high schools. Then again, there is evidence that a non-Marxist view of American history is catching up with the curriculum in some places, as Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man was on the table too.
But the best antidote to the reflexive because-America-has-been-strong-it-must-be-wrong radicalism of Howard Zinn lying on the summer reading table may have been Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi novel Ender’s Game. Ender’s Game, which has made official high-school summer reading lists for several years now, explores themes of the morality and the consequences of the use of force in ways I suspect have a much bigger impact on many teenage minds than old-line Marxist historicism will. Just ignore the little coda at the end of EG, where the author forces a bridge between Ender’s story and the next couple of books in his “Speaker for the Dead” series.
(The fact that links are included to all books mentioned in this post should not be interpreted as a suggestion to buy all of them).