This weekend the New York Times ran an op-ed piece by Lorrie Moore on the Huck Finn n-word thing I posted about last week. She suggests that Huckleberry Finn isn't really appropriate for high schoolers and should be studied in college. Well, she's right, I think, and I was wrong. It's a great essay.
Of course, convincing high school teachers to change their curricula is probably more difficult than cutting a word from a book. And what should replace HF? I guess we can't answer that question until we figure out exactly what the goals are when we teach literature to high school students. Lorrie Moore suggests that a main goal is to get kids to like to read. That's a good goal, but I don't think it's enough. The fact is, for many kids, the books they read in their high school English classes will be the last novels they ever read, no matter how much those books cater to their tastes. Perhaps some of those books should challenge their tastes -- broaden them. The Scarlet Letter was the most difficult book I'd ever read back in 11th grade; I remember opening my bedroom window and leaning out into a snowstorm to try and stay awake through it. I hated every page of that stupid book. But I learned that I could actually read something hard, and understand it. (Later we read O.E. Rolvaag's Giants in the Earth, which was about 900 pages of Norwegian immigrants trying to bury their dead children in the frozen prairie. OMG. I can't believe I read the whole thing. My English teacher was a genius.)
These days high school curricula are much more multi-cultural, which is good, and I suppose HF has hung on so long in part because of the difficult questions about race and history it raises. But what else is out there? Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which Moore mentions in her essay, is terrific and a perfect choice to teach to teenagers: it talks about identity, history, and culture, but is also very funny and brilliantly written.
Can you think of any other great books for a high school literature class?