These are the questions David Denby set out to answer in doing the research for his latest book, Lit Up. Over the course of an entire academic school year, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school, while also making frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and in the end wrote an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves.
In honor of these life-changing works and David Denby’s Lit Up audiobook (read by narrator Christopher Price, and available now wherever great audiobooks are sold!), the team here at Macmillan Audio took the reading list featured in Lit Up and shared our own stories for favorites still read in schools today.
1. “A Rose for Emily” (Faulkner)
Robert says: I first read “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner in college and my memory was of the rather startling ending. Re-reading some 40 years later I was struck more by the wonderful descriptions of the declining fortunes of the town and its inhabitants. I had not noticed in my initial reading how the decay that became apparent at the end of the story was evident throughout the story in the descriptions of the homes, the families, Emily herself, and the customs of a fading society. “But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and gas pumps – an eyesore among eyesores.” I can so clearly see this neighborhood in my memory of my own hometown and other towns I visited growing up in the south.
Robert says: I have always been a fan of Nathaniel Hawthorne and have especially loved his short stories. In fact I named my indomitable black cat (pictured left) Hawthorne in his honor. When I lived in Atlanta and had hipper friends, we would occasionally read short stories together, and I always loved reading stories by Hawthorne. I had forgotten how dark some of the stories are which is probably why I like them so much. In The Minster’s Black Veil young Parson Hooper appears one day with a black veil across his face. Hawthorne does not reveal why Parson Hooper wears the veil but the reader senses that it is out of guilt or shame, if not for the parson personally for humankind overall. Having just read A Rose for Emily, it struck me how the protagonists in each story let their guilt and shame become between them and the rest of society.
3. The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Abby says: The Scarlet Letter is a rich work, full of opportunities to learn about the building blocks of both literature and American society, but contemporary teenagers often respond poorly to its antiquated formality. I experienced it as a intense but scenic hike, thanks to my dynamic 11th-grade English teacher, who took on the qualities of a determined Scout leader as we forged into the intricacies of Hawthorne’s language. We (actually!) kept track of recurring symbolism and themes on our own, while she used the text in class to demonstrate the tools of literary analysis. The challenge for teachers is not only to translate for a generation that inevitably strains to understand Hawthorne’s language and the context of Puritan New England, but convince them that it’s worth the effort to try.
4. Sylvia Plath Poems: Lady Lazarus, Daddy
5. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
6. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)
7. Siddhartha (Herman Hesse)
8. “Harrison Bergeron” (Vonnegut)
9. Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut)
10. To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
Alex says: I read To Kill a Mockingbird with my English class in middle school and it was the best introduction for me to see how great literature has a way of solidifying ideas and values on compassion and empathy. The words and actions Atticus Finch quickly became the cornerstone of beliefs that every human has the rights to be treated fairly and equally and that no man is better than another. I think it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that I owe a large debt to Harper Lee and Atticus Finch for shaping the person I have become.
11. A Long Way Gone (Ishmael Beah)
12. Macbeth (Shakespeare)
Alex says: I read Macbeth in a high school English class and I ate up every word from Lady Macbeth. I was a fairly shy and meek teenager and I remember thinking that Lady Macbeth was a fantastic example of a woman who clearly outwitted those around her AND was an epic badass Lady Macbeth. I think I had high hopes of becoming an equally ambitious badass.
13. No Exit (Sarte)
14. Waiting for Godot (Beckett)
15. “Politics and the English Language” (George Orwell)
16. 1984 (George Orwell)
Samantha says: I read 1984 in middle school and while the details have not stuck with me the experience did. I was a practical child who liked books that took place in reality so this dystopian novel really expanded my literary universe. Plus the fact that this book, written decades before, still had so many relevant applications to the present really impressed me.
17. Man’s Search for Meaning (Victor E. Frankl)
18. Notes from Underground (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
19. Night (Elie Wiesel)
20. The Kite Runner
Danielle says: Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner was a book that I read well after I had finished my formal education, but nevertheless found to be incredibly resonant (so much so that I locked myself in the hotel room on a family vacation and wouldn’t join in on the fun until I had finished the book). The tale of family and friendship, and how fragile those relationships can be, set against the truly tragic landscape of Afghanistan and its internal conflicts made for a gripping read. The Kite Runner also serves as a great reminder for a reader of any age that one shouldn’t take life’s gifts for granted.
21. Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison)
Justine says: When I first read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, I was intrigued by how real and heart-wrenching the account of the racial struggles in the 50’s was as told by the unnamed narrator. I first read this during a graduate course on American literature beginning in 1945. It was an unforgettable novel and I was so fascinated by how it underscores the dichotomy of visibility and invisibility in a racially biased world as the narrator navigates through college, finding a voice within the Black Panthers, and watching friend’s die right before his eyes.Such a painfully insightful book that one will not soon forget! It’s the type of book whose powerful images you remember long after the story ends. I only wish I had read this book earlier.
22. East of Eden (Steinbeck)
What were the books that changed your life? Share them with us in the comments below, then listen to an excerpt of David Denby’s Lit Up, read by Christopher Price: