What We Read When We're Seventeen

Last Thursday was the first day of class for a university course I am teaching on Catholic novelists, and I remembered to ask a question that always intrigues me with a new group of students:  What one book have you all read? 

In other words, is there any single novel that everyone in the room has been exposed to, either for fun or in school?  If we can get a supermajority (unanimity seems impossible) on one book, it gives us a common reference point for what a “classic” or “popular” novel should be.  It also offers a glimpse of what is considered a classic, or at least a reliable staple of high school literature courses, something that presumably is constantly in flux.


I think we’re in luck this semester—almost everyone in the room has read The Great Gatsby, and a significant majority nodded yes to The Catcher in The Rye.  There’s too many options among the Hemingway novels for one to dominate, it seems, and I refuse to ask about Dan Brown or things vampirish.

 Given the geographic, cultural, and religious pluralities present in the class, I was pleasantly surprised that we could even have two books that are so familiar.  But I was also reminded that nothing in the past 50 years seems to have overtaken those two books for sheer ubiquity in the American educational system. To Kill A Mockingbird was 51 years ago, and is probably the novel that comes closest in the classrooms; Catch-22 was exactly five decades ago, but as much as I want it to be read by everyone, I get the sense it is losing in popularity as a high school assignment. Lord of the Flies was almost six decades ago, and Of Mice and Men more than seven.

And what about the decades since?   Who’s conjured up the 21st-century Jay Gatsby, the millennial Holden Caulfield?  Every few years a new author is suggested as the next Great American Novelist, and plenty of these contenders have written books accessible to high-school-aged readers, but time is a brutal and careless thief: I saw Jay McInerney’s cameo on Gossip Girl tonight (yes, I know, shocked, shocked) and was reminded that once upon a time he, too, was a contender, with Bright Lights, Big City (1984).  But when’s the last time someone mentioned Bright Lights, Big City?  And tell the truth, you thought Bret Easton Ellis wrote it.

Of course, the next American Lit classic might be gathering dust while waiting to be rediscovered. Fitzgerald, after all, never lived to see Gatsby become a success—it had sold fewer than 25,000 copies at the time of his death, becoming wildly popular only several decades after its 1925 publication…

 Jim Keane, S.J.



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8 years 1 month ago
I don't belive that it was a class assignement; however, On the Road by Kerouac was my favorite read when I was 18 - something that really sparked a life long interest in lit that no other author had accomplished up until that point.  And he is Catholic!

What books are you teaching for Catholic authors?  Graham Greene, Chesterton and Eliot?  Lots of Flannery O'connor's short stories and novels I hope!

Might was well throw in some Dostoevsky, too, even though he was Russian Orthodox ;)
Vince Killoran
8 years 1 month ago
Toni Morrison's BELOVED.
8 years 1 month ago
Also, Fr. Martin -

Rene Girard's first book - "Deciet, Desire and the Novel" - was on literary criticism of Proust, Stendal, Cervantes and Dostovesky.  The writing of it led to his re-converstion and it is a mind-blowing critique of how great novel's work and the essential religious themes in all master novelists.

This might be great help in teaching this particular course but beyond that it is really amazing and ground breaking combo of theology, psychology and lit. crit.
Marie Rehbein
8 years 1 month ago
My son, a senior in public high school, has read Hamlet, Brave New World (his favorite), Crime and Punishment, and Othello this year.   My daughter in eighth grade in Catholic school has read To Kill a Mockingbird (her favorite) and Lord of the Flies.  We have The Bell Jar, Catcher in the Rye, Something Wicked This Way Comes, A Midsummernight's Dream, and The Scarlet Letter from previous years.  
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
The only novels I remember being assigned in high school were The Scarlet Letter and The Old Man and the Sea.  I liked the ones I picked for myself better - mostly science fiction and historical fiction like Stranger in a Strange Land, The Forever War, Downbelow Station, The Last of the Wine, Count Belisarius, etc.
Crystal Watson
8 years 1 month ago
Oh, I forgot Dickens - A Tale of Two Cities in high shool English - it was great!
Kang Dole
8 years 1 month ago
I think that the most recent book that I was assigned in high school (class of '98) was Grendel (published 1971). There were a few books that were assigned multiple times (All Quiet on the Western Front and Night). Yes, Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises seemed as though they occupied permanent positions in the curriculum. I most remember our class being assigned The Stranger in the 10th grade-the response of the students was fairly sad (no plot!).

I also remember the 11th grade. The teacher was pretty old and past batty: we didn't read Huckleberry Finn, we read the script to Big River.
Liam Richardson
8 years 1 month ago
Well, for my 12th-grade humanities class in 1978-79 in Farmingdale Senior High School, I got into reading Mann, with Flannery O'Connor on the side. Some Proust and I have a soft spot for Manzoni's The Betrothed from my high school reading. Didn't care for Hardy's novels, but loved his poetry.
Madison Lee
8 years ago
I’m not surprised to know `Lord of the Flies’ is a book that is read by the majority. It IS that kind of book – the kind that makes you think in a way that can turn your world topsy-turvy. You’d think a book about a bunch of boys stranded on an island would be about their adventures and pranks and innocence. There is nothing innocent about these boys. On the contrary, as we read along an invisible fear grips us as we realize that the story is a reflection of the adult world that we have created. And it’s not a nice world. Some of the often-cited Lord of the Flies quotes can vouch for this. Shmoop has a lot to say on this novel that has influenced many a people for over fifty years. I really found their comments and reviews interesting in enhancing my perspective.


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