The Awesome Books My Literature Students Read
It’s amazing what kids can do when you raise your expectations of them.
I have been teaching literature to high schoolers for 24 years. The first ten were in a public school, where I covered the standard textbook stuff — poetry, short stories, and excerpts from longer works. In a good year, we might also get through two short novels like A Separate Peace or The Pearl. Never more than that. And often, we had to read the novels aloud in class over several weeks because so few would be willing to complete the reading on their own.
That’s not a blanket criticism of public schools or school kids, by the way. I taught in a low-income school with a history of low performance, and I was usually given low-level courses (because I was good with those kids). It was hard, and there are no easy answers to the myriad challenges such schools face.
When given the opportunity to teach literature in a once-per-week enrichment program for homeschoolers in 1999, I jumped at the chance. I loved the idea of creating my own curriculum from scratch. I had always thought students could handle more than what we typically asked of them.
Roughly following the classical/Great Books model advocated by Susan Wise Bauers and others, and tweaking the syllabus over the years, I eventually landed on the 5-year plan below. I’ve taught this curriculum for about ten years now, and well over a hundred kids have completed at least the first four courses (the Advanced Lit class is reserved for those who finish the first four early or seniors willing to take two lit classes).
It’s an impressive book list. I am always amazed at how well teenagers do. They not only complete each week’s reading assignment and pass their weekly comprehension quizzes, but — and this is the so important — they usually like the books. Not all of them, of course, and everyone prefers some to others, but the great majority of students tell me year after year how much they enjoyed what they read.
I take a particular approach to these works — one that I explain at the start of each year. Our goal is to simply scratch the surface of each book. I subscribe to C.S. Lewis’s definition of great books: They are books that invite and reward additional readings. What I hope to accomplish in my lit classes is to introduce students to the best books I know by the most influential writers of the western tradition. These books are rich and deep. We don’t even pretend to plumb their depths. We talk about their place in literary history and the general reasons they are recognized. We spend some brief time talking about the author and the historical period, but the emphasis is on the content of the books themselves — the story, characters, and style.
We talk a lot about what we like and don’t like. When we discuss books we don’t like, we talk about why others might like it so much. We make fun of the dumb parts (and trust me, even the greatest of great books have some dumb parts). We laugh a lot and remind ourselves that these books were not written to be analyzed and dissected by teenagers, but to delight and enthrall ordinary readers.
I could write more about my approach to teaching literature in a future post, but let’s get to the point of this one: to show off the books my students read. Unless noted, we read the works unabridged in their entirety. Let me know if you have any questions.
- Mythology (Edith Hamilton)
- The Iliad (Homer)
- The Odyssey (Homer)
- Agamemnon (Aeschylus)
- Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)
- Medea (Eurpides)
- The Frogs (Aristophanes)
- Various Fables (Aesop)
- Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis)
- Various Dialogues (Plato)
- Selections from The Republic (Plato)
- Poetics (Aristotle)
- The Aeneid (Virgil)
- The Lives of Lycurgus & Caesar (Plutarch)
- Julius Caesar (Shakespeare)
- Confessions (Augustine — an abridged translation)
- Beowulf (Anonymous — the Seamus Heaney trans.)
- The Inferno (Dante)
- Various Canterbury Tales (Chaucer)
- “The Knight’s Tale”
- “The Pardoner’s Tale”
- “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”
- “Gawain and the Green Knight” (Tolkien’s translation)
- The Once and Future King (T.H. White)
- Excerpts from Le Morte D’Arthur (Malory)
- Utopia (More)
- Book 1 of The Faerie Queen (Spenser)
- Doctor Faustus (Marlowe)
- Hamlet (Shakespeare)
- Macbeth (Shakespeare)
- Henry IV, Part 1 (Shakespeare)
- Henry IV, Part 2 (Shakespeare)
- Henry V (We watch the film version by Kenneth Branaugh as a class)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Shakespeare)
- Various Sonnets (Shakespeare)
- Selections from John Donne (“Valediction, Forbidding Mourning,” “The Flea,” etc.)
- Various metaphysical poems (“To His Coy Mistress,” “To the Virgins,” etc.
- Don Quixote (Cervantes, abridged trans. by Starkie)
- Paradise Lost (Milton)
- Christianity for Modern Pagans (Kreeft’s abridged, annotated verson of Pascal’s Pensees)
- Pilgrim’s Progress (Bunyan)
- Gulliver’s Travels (Swift) or Robinson Crusoe (Defoe)
- Various poems by the Minor Romantics (Burns, Gray, Bryant, Blake, etc.)
- Various poems by the Major Romantics (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Byron)
- Pride and Prejudice (Austen) or Jane Eyre (Bronte)
- Frankenstein (Shelley)
- Various poems by Tennyson (“Charge of the Light Brigade,” Crossing the Bar,” etc.)
- Various works by Poe (“The Raven,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontillado,” etc.)
- “Self-Reliance” (Emerson)
- “Civil Disobedience” (Thoreau)
- Excerpts from Walden (Thoreau)
- “Rappuccini’s Daughter” and “The Minister’s Black Veil” (Hawthorne)
- Moby Dick (Melville)
- David Copperfield (Dickens)
- Various poems by Dickinson
- Various poems by Whitman
- Crime and Punishment (Dostoyevsky)
- The Return of the Native (Hardy)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain)
- The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
- “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (Eliot)
- Various poems by the Modernists (Pound, Williams, Hughes, Cummings Frost)
- “The Metamorphosis” (Kafka)
- “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (O’Connor)
- “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” (Hemingway)
- Our Town (Wilder)
- Go Down, Moses (Faulker)
- Animal Farm (Orwell)
- The Old Man and the Sea (Hemingway)
- The Crucible (Miller)
- Lord of the Flies (Golding)
- The Great Divorce (Lewis)
- Peace Like a River (Enger)
- The Universe Next Door (Sire)
- An Experiment in Criticism (Lewis)
- How to Read Literature Like a Professor (Foster)
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Stevenson)
- The Scarlet Letter (Hawthorne)
- Heart of Darkness (Conrad)
- Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (Dillard)
- The Call of the Wild (London)
- Waiting for Godot (Beckett)
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Stoppard)
- The Plague (Camus)
- Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (Pirsig)
- Life of Pi (Martel)
- Things Fall Apart (Achebe)
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee)
- Lost in the Cosmos (Percy)
Hi ..first of all nice post. I dont if this page is still active or not as the poat is about 2 yrs old. Biut I am sincerely interested in going through list of books. So please if you get this send me the reading schedule @my mail id. Thanks already. 🙂
Can you send me the reading schedule for this book list pls, to break this up into manageable segments like you said. Thanks.
Just sent them. Let me know if you have any questions.
Kindly can you send reading schedule of these books please?
Hi, I love the list I’m just starting it as a summer goal plan thanks! I’m in grade 9 and I’ve already read a few books in each section but in advanced lit I’ve only read to kill a mocking bird. I loved it though the symbolism in the book was great and really made you think. Are there any books like that, that you’d recommend?
I would recommend trying to get through my list. Every book is important and excellent, but not all will appeal to you the same way. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorites as well.
i’ve just love your reading list.i have read most of the books you have list especially the ones in LIT 2. i am currently reading Othello. i am a literature student and i real love reading.
That’s great to hear, Fiona. Thanks for commenting.
The critical aspect of all of these books is that they demonstrate and teach principles. Principles stand true—always. If willing to advance and fulfill one’s potential (for everyone is capable of such wisdom) in high school, take the challenge! This is wonderful, Brain. In no way do I object to your curriculum. In fact, I would follow it myself!
I’m not sure I understand what you are saying about principles, but I’m glad you approve of my reading list.
I too love this list, and I’d love to see the reading schedule you mentioned. If it’s convenient, would you mind emailing it to me?
Thank you so much!
Sure, Nancy. Email me at brian-at-writeathome-dot-com and I’ll reply with the reading schedules attached.
I just copied this list so I can start conquering it. Thanks, Brian!
Good luck, Rhonda. 🙂
This article hit home with me as I am working with a ‘homeschool’ student this year, as our small rural school was closed temporarily this due to low enrollment.
What I want for him this year is to read, a lot, and have the opportunity to talk about what he’s reading We are starting with ‘Moby Dick’ as he has been asking to read this book. My question to you is, is there anyway to get the syllabus that she used for some of these books. I will look up Susan Wise Bauers model for reading these classics later today.
I could get you the reading schedule if you like. It breaks up the reading into manageable segments.
Yes, please send me the reading schedule for the book list from the article ‘The Awesome Books My Literature Students Read’.
Thanks for sharing! I’m ashamed to say that there are a good chunk of these that I haven’t read… although I’ve intended to get around to most of them. I’ll add them to my never ending book list.
I was pleased to see Pilgrim at Tinker Creek included, since Dillard’s work is so groundbreaking. That’s an intense book. Teaching a Stone to Talk is another one of her great works.
I actually like Walden quite a bit and am currently rereading it. Thoreau’s worldview fascinates me: his ridiculous romanticism of nature is laughable, his unabashed snobbiness puts many hipsters to shame, and his tangents into rants and visions make reading the book an adventure. I love scribbling objections and kudos to him in the margins of the pages— rarely have I read a book that I engaged with so much. I can see why other people don’t like it, but I love being immersed in such a different point of view from my own. 🙂
Thanks for sharing that Lisa. I know Walden hasn’t survived all these years for nothing.
Interesting that you mention both Walden and Pilgrim, as Pilgrim is something of a modern-day Walden.
I love these lists and I’d love to hear more about your Lit classes. 🙂
Great, Heidi. I’d be happy to talk more about them.
I have to say, the books you picked really are good, except for Walden ( at least in my opinion). Four of the books in your literature 2 list I’ve read within the last month (Beowulf, all three of the Canterbury Tales mentioned, Sir Gawain and the Green knight, and Macbeth) Now I have a new goal: Finish all of the books you mentioned before I graduate!
Also, I think you should throw in The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. That was by far my favorite of all the literature that I have done throughtout eighth, ninth, and tenth grade.
Walden’s not my favorite read either, which is why I only do brief excerpts — to give kids a feel for transcendentalism.
Be warned about my book list, Grammar Nut, some of the books later in the course — particularly in the Advanced Lit course address mature themes. The program I teach in comes from a distinctly Christian worldview, so I am careful to help students process such material.
I guess what I’m saying is don’t be mad at me if you find something you find offensive in a book or two. 🙂
Otherwise, go for it!
The Importance of Being Earnest was under consideration, but I couldn’t fit it in. It gets harder and harder in the 19th and 20th centuries. You have to pick and choose.
Truthfully, I don’t mind the more mature books. After all, its good to have some knowledge of views or things that you don’t agree with.
High school? My word, I read most of these books in college. I read The Pearl in high school and I remember thinking that the content was a bit much. Was the author really talking about sex? I wouldn’t want my kids reading it. Although I was talking to my husband about the difference in music now and back in the day. I just watched Dangerous Minds where the Michelle Pheiffer character used a Bob Dylan poem with her students. It had subtle drug references that you had to think critically to understand. Driving in the van with my kids I had to turn the station because they were pretty blatant about their drug references! I don’t want that in their heads. The 80’s called, they want Danielle Branch back!
Yeah, kids who have gone on to college (like my oldest daughter) love when they hit these books for the second time in college classes. It gives them a big advantage.
There was plenty of sex and drugs in the music of the 80s and earlier, Danielle. You just weren’t paying attention. 🙂