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Jason Chervokas

Having read Moby at least 4 times start to finish, and passages of it many many more times than that, I can't imagine ever not wanting to read it, but you know I go through a Melville jag every coupla years. He's my fave. Hard to put myself back in the mindset of a 7th or 8th grader to imagine what I would have picked back then--at that age I think I read a lot of biographies (memorably of Bob Dylan and Moe Berg)--but I think mostly a book like Moby is a lousy place to start w/ kids. I mean, the core theme of the doomed quest to know the unknowable is just a tough one for 14-year-olds never mind the discersive 19th century language or the sheer length, both sure to be daunting to most kids of that age (tho sex and love seem to me less daunting themes for kids of that age, there are fewer things more on their minds. I remember reading Kerouac's little nostalgic romance Maggie Cassidy in snatches at that age when I was working as an assistant to a local artist and it was on her bookshelf. That kind of book is a good one I think for a 14-year-old). The Pearl, yeah, I remember having to read that and hating the experience is my only lingering memory of it. Later Ethan Frome(tho' I responded much better to some of the other short novels that are typically assigned at that age The Old Man and the Sea, The Red Badge of Courage, which I actually read later and loved more than I might have then; other folks I know really responded at that age to, of course, A Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird). But I agree with the idea that choice, even if it's choice from a list of options, is a great idea.

Kevin Wolf

I was never not reading a book through my school years, and even across summers, but I read mostly junk. Into high school and college, I read junk. Took "lit" classes that weren't about Shakespeare, or the development of the novel, or the literature of any place or period -- supposed lit courses on science fiction, detective novels, and the like. I was a lazy student. (And, as I'm sure you'd acknowledge, Lance, some titles assigned as "good books" in school, like A Separate Peace are shite.)

For me, the difference was that when I read, I read. It was not a substitute for TV or movies. I enjoyed reading. I liked words. So even the junky books I read were consumed as, and because they were, books. (Don't know if that makes any sense.)

The most challenging reading I did was after I'd graduated college. That's when I read Moby Dick for fun. But because I avoided "real" books for so long, I'm not as well read as I should be. I'm not smart enough to know what the balance should be between assigned reading and exploring for oneself.


You know, I just don't remember assigned Summer reading lists when I was a kid. Of course, getting me to stop reading was more of a problem than otherwise.
I have to say, as a public librarian, and in my opinion only, I'm not a big fan of the assigned reading lists. Mostly because I agree with you Lance, assigning a certain title isn't always the best way to introduce a student to books. I'd be happier if teachers assigned, say, a list of authors and suggested that students read their own choice of that author's work.


As a precocious 13-year-old, I remember reading both "Peyton Place" and "Crime and Punishment." Though I didn't understand parts of both novels, they were both fascinating, a window into the weird adult world.

I was also assigned "The Pearl" in seventh grade and hated it on so many levels that I wrote a 50-page parody and handed it in as my class essay. Steinbeck is usually great, except when he's romanticizing simple Mexican peasants (see "Viva Zapata").

Mike Schilling

In my experience, the book that makes kids hate Steinbeck is The Red Pony. I gave my son Tortilla Flat afterward to get the bad taste out of his mouth.


Well, my mother is a librarian, so the answer to what I would have read is probably something along the lines of "whatever she brought home that week" - at least if we're talking pre-high school. I've always liked stories about magic and adventure and clever children doing interesting things without adult supervision, so that's the sort of book I'd have picked for myself. In high school I discovered both fantasy and science fiction for adults, and never looked back. I guess you'd have to toss occasional forays into mysteries and thrillers there, but those were mostly things I read because they were lying around the house.

What I wouldn't have read would have been dramas or historical novels or anything involving sports or war (unless it was war involving elves or space ships). I also wasn't all that interested in coming-of-age novels beyond the obligatory Judy Blume stage, because, as a skinny nerdy girl with glasses, I liked to read books that didn't remind me of school and all the annoying social dynamics that played out there.

When I finally got around to reading Moby Dick as an adult a few years ago, the part I liked best were the "boring" whaling sections - and that probably would have been the case when I was younger, too.


Hmm. Seventh and eighth grade? Despite going to E.A.Poe school, I don't think we were assigned anything by the man; read those on my own. "Johnny Tremaine?" "The Man Without a Country?" Maybe "Red Badge of Courage."

True fact: ten years later I was a contestant on an interfraternity quiz thing at the U of Arizona and one of the questions directed to me was "Who was Phillip Nolan?" Memory of my seventh-grade reading served me well!


I haven't changed much...then, as now, I appreciated a list of books that someone thought was worth reading. Lots of time I read whatever my parents were reading, which embarrassed them a little - some of the Irving Stone was a little risque (but educational), and The Godfather was probably not meant for a twelve yr old. In 7th and 8th grade my favorite teacher would give us lists of books, and I remember choosing The Crystal Cave, Fraser's Mary Queen of Scots, and Burr from her lists. Those are still some of my favorite books. Didn't even mind writing the book reports!

The assigned reading in high school was not as memorable to me. I read a lot of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in advanced placement English, and I did like that. Stephen Crane left me cold. I had to read The Blue Hotel in at least 4 different classes, even in college, and hated it every time.

I honestly can't remember if I have ever even read Moby Dick.


I don't remember being assigned any novels until 9th grade,when we read Great Expectations and Romeo and Juliet. I don't remember having any summer reading assigned until I was entering AP English, when we had to have read Crime and Punishment before the start of school.

My daughter, who is now a 9th grader, has had summer reading assignments regularly, usually having to pick from a list. The lists have generally been pretty reasonable. I found it fascinating, though, which books required parental permission and which ones didn't. Memoirs of a Geisha, which my daughter chose, required permission (sex!!), but Across the Nightingale Floor didn't, it merely containing violence (it's about assassins, and someone's head gets chopped off in the first couple of chapters.)


Seventh grade, huh?

Hm. A Christmas Carol would be on the list, I'm sure. Moby Dick might have made it, but I probably would have been reading Catch-22, or perhaps some Hemingway.

Cleveland Bob

I'd agree with your opinion on The Pearl and concur again with the selection of Cannery Row as a Steinbeck starting point. I love the book of East of Eden.

I remember reading Mark Twain in 7th grade, all of Edgar Allen Poe's stuff and I recall being fascinated by things Egyptian so I read a bunch of reference type Ancient Mythology books. Probably Edith Hamilton's classic book.

Of course we spent the shank of my 13th summer watching the Watergate Hearings so that cut in to my reading time.

Oh, and lots of Mad and Cracked magazines.

Bill Altreuter

There's lots and lots of Steinbeck that nobody should have to read, and the list starts with The Pearl. On the other hand, Steinbeck, like Thomas Wolfe is a writer that is best approached right in that window between 7th and 10th Grade. You'll come back to them later on if you start young. So Look Homeward, Angel should be on that list. Maybe some Willa Cather, too.

But not Moby Dick. Too easy to get bogged down with the White Whale.


We had summer reading lists, not unlike what you describe: chose 5 of these 50. I think it would be hard to teach to a curriculum that was choose-your-own though, which was my impression of this proposal.
My parents never troubled themselves with what I was reading, though somewhere in the vicinity of 6th grade or so I was bribed into reading Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice as a karmic balance to some of the crap. We read the Hobbit and Anne McCaffrey's Dragon Song/Dragon Singer in 6th grade - it was a very big deal that we got to read something like this, we looked forward to is as a middle school rite of passage.

And now I am terribly afraid I will have to climb into the attic and look and see what else was on the middle school curriculum.


Let's see, 8th grade: I read almost everything by Tennesee Williams and wrote several book reports. The teacher never commented on my choices. As a senior in high school and no longer in the honors English program (taking too many science classes to leave room for the honors English) I got the chance to do a number on my English teacher's mind, to wit, at the school book fair buying a stack of science fiction novels. I turned in a report on Tom Jones when I said the Easter break report would be on Brothers Karamazov. What really got him was when I said I found Karamazov boring and so I just reread the parts of Tom Jones I needed to in order to analyze one character. This was the 7th or 8th time I used Tom Jones for a report between Junior and Senior High.

Janelle Dvorak

PurpleGirl, you and my younger son would get along fine. He used "Red Scorpion" for three years of book reports.

I was never assigned summer reading but like many of you, it was a challenge to get me to stop reading, not start. I don't recall being assigned novels in eighth grade at all. If I recall correctly, I was reading Dickens, Jane Austen, a bunch of historical fiction, history and biography, and assorted Victorian poets. I was also reading those 600 page novels that were take-offs on "Gone With the Wind" but set elsewhere, for instance, Ireland. This was before the bodice-rippers a la Kathleen Woodiwiss really got rolling. In retrospect, I've read a lot of really good stuff and a lot of filler.


I swear we had to read Red Badge of Courage in the 7th grade in 1959. Is that possible?


Very funny - The Pearl! We had to read it in my freshman year of Catholic high school. The book and Catholic high school were excruciating. I have not picked up anything by Steinbeck for 30+ years. The comments have made me (maybe) reconsider. In 8th grade, we read David Copperfield as a class. I have fond memories of this time. I also believe that reading aloud in class is something that every teacher should do because it is a very good test of reading and comprehension.

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