It wasn’t until my second reading of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, over a decade after it first had been assigned to me by my public high school English teacher, that I understood that Jake’s dick didn’t work. The word “impotence” never shows up in the book, and in my teenage mind it didn’t pose a huge problem between him and Lady Brett. Couldn’t they just dry hump as everyone else in the tenth grade did? Abstract notions of emasculation—how that related to bullfighting, trench warfare, loss, diminution, dying—did not even occur to me. And even if some enterprising young teacher (which numbered exactly 10 in the 3,800-student high school I attended) had had the time to spell it all out—whack me over the head with a “goodbye to all that! the end of an era!” sermon—I doubt it would have made much difference. For I, like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels. Reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald now, on the treacherous precipice of thirty, I can kind of relate to the themes of adult loss, waning youth, disintegrating plans buried under too many compromises. But teenagers? I’m agog that these novels show up on high schoolers’ reading list. I think about how hungry I was a teenager, starving for stimuli. It couldn’t be just anything. It had to feel vital and urgent, to be something that could put words to all the new and bewildering feelings that wriggled through my body each day. Trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.
It isn’t just the tomes of the Lost Generation that failed to make an impression on me in high school. Those damnable Brontë sisters were shoved down my throat. Steinbeck was almost ruined forever thanks to a brutally inept teaching of The Pearl. To this day, I still have no idea what Bless Me, Ultima is about. It turned me off from reading novels until my early twenties. I became far more enraptured with movies, musicals, and plays. These formats seized my attention and gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them. Reading novels alongside thirty-two other students in tenth grade did not.*
Perhaps it is different at a place like Eton, where beaky-nosed British boys are made to memorize Kipling at age six, have tutors in Latin, and sit three to a professor in some grand old parlor studying The Republic. Maybe Hemingway or the Brontës are easily digestible light fair in their single-sex vault of antiquity and starchy blazers. Or even across town from where I live, in Santa Monica, at a tony private school like Crossroads, where the sons and daughters of James Cameron and Denzel Washington go, where they get to address their teachers by their first name, perhaps hanging out in the “student lounge” on plushy couches allowed them greater psychic energy to ponder the odd courting rituals of nineteenth-century England.
But most high-school-age kids don’t go to those schools. They go to overcrowded, underfunded schools, staffed by largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.
I could blame my teachers, most of whom were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handed out the first day we started Dickens. It could be that I never enjoyed listening to my fellow students read Siddhartha aloud of thirty-minute intervals in monotonous drone, never mind those deadening take-home reading comprehension questions:
When Siddhartha receives his first kiss, the style changes. How? Why?
Perhaps then, the issue is with the novel itself. Just maybe the novel is not the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers. Maybe there is a better format and genre to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner. Thankfully this genre exists: It’s called non-fiction.
Journalism, essay, memoir, creative nonfiction: These are only things I started reading as an adult because of how little I enjoyed reading novels in high school. Surely, the un-made-up stuff would be more of a bore, I thought. Yet when I finally read In Cold Blood, Into Thin Air, the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion, I continually pleaded aloud to my friends in their twenties, “Why didn’t anyone make me read this in high school?!”
How much easier it would have been! The stakes, so high and clear: A group of people set out to climb Mount Everest. There is no metaphor to untangle! The mountain is, like, a big fucking deal on its own. People die on it. Will people die on this expedition? Probably! Tell us more, Jon Krakauer!
The stories are direct and engaging. A whole family is slaughtered in a podunk wholesome town in Kansas. Who did it? And Why?
There’s a thirty-year-old French man who convinces a family he is their missing teenage son? The story, a great detective piece by David Grann, illuminates issues of denial, identity, trauma, loss, and deception. There’s a lengthy piece about it in the New Yorker? The whole thing could be read in thirty minutes before fifth-period Economics!
There is also room for style and mood. Carry us away to Haight and Ashbury, Ms. Didion. Show us what the nuclear family looks like after it detonates; introduce us to those wayward teens who have rejected middle-class values but find themselves unmoored, hungry, and slouching toward some sort of social cataclysm. If ever there was an essay waiting to be devoured by high school students, surely this is the one.
I imagine that teaching “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace to high schoolers would be a far more literary and thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly.
To hell with Gatsby’s green light! Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!
So here is a hypothetical non-fiction reading list—the books I wish I had been required to read in high school instead of Hemingway and the Brontës:
Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer
“Shooting An Elephant,” by George Orwell
Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Malcolm X
Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser
Trial By Fire, by David Grann
Parting the Waters, by Taylor Branch
“A Death in the Family,” by Christopher Hitchens
Newjack, by Ted Conover
Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer
“Trash, Art, and the Movies,” by Pauline Kael
Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin
“Notes on Camp,” by Susan Sontag
“Help Us Please,” Katrina coverage from the Times-Picayune
“The Troubles at King/Drew,” by Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber
Methland, by Nick Reding
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, by Hunter S. Thompson
Fire on the Prairie, by Gary Rivlin
Dark Alliance, by Gary Webb
* I very much enjoyed the novels we read as junior high students. Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Phantom Tollbooth. Eleven- to thirteen-year-olds still have the capacity for wonder, and the temperament to be afraid of not completing their reading assignments.
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America (Harper Design, 2010).