How many books did you read per month during the school year?
I only really started devouring books when I was 15; prior to that I think I was only reading about 10 or so a year. From age 15 on, I was reading between 30 and 50 books a year, typically reading multiple books at once.
Did you usually enjoy reading books assigned by your school?
Yes, absolutely! I was exposed to many books that I may not have encountered otherwise that way. The beauty of the reading assignments at my high school, though, which was an alternative school in which the students themselves had a huge influence in their own education, was that our English teacher would suggest several possible books centered around a discussion theme and we were each able to choose the one that most interested us, or substitute our own related read with the teacher’s consent. I discovered so many amazing authors that way, like Jack Kerouac, Toni Morrison, Louise Erdrich, Dalton Trumbo, Truman Capote, Tim O’Brien, and Yann Martel; as well as plenty of classics.
What has been your favorite assigned read?
That is a really tough question! I have three favorites: “The Electric Ant” by Philip K. Dick, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. All of them radically changed my perspective on the world and made me realize that I wasn’t alone in the way I felt, a really important thing for every teenager to become aware of!
Which required read was the hardest to get through and why?
I love studying history — I am a glutton for knowledge — but I found The Iliad too gory. I couldn’t make out the story or the purpose of it through all the corpses and blood on the Trojan battlefield! It was pretty horrific, especially since I was reading it while suffering from a really bad case of mono and tonsillitis that had me out of school for three months. It was not uplifting stuff.
Were they always classic novels or also recent books?
Up until high school they were all classics, but my high school English teacher Barbara did an excellent job of exposing us to all kinds of literature, both modern and classic! I feel really blessed for that.
Which books do you wish your school would mark as “required reading” and why?
I think Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder should be required reading for all young people. I read it when I was 12 and it helped me to understand so much. It is simultaneously a mind-blowing book-within-a-book and a history of world philosophy delivered in novel form in the most clever way imaginable.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline would also be on my dream school reading list. As we get more and more adept at VR and as we make further and further advances in technology without stopping to take care of our fellow humans along the way, the message of Ready Player One becomes more and more relevant. Teenagers might not get all the ’80s references without quite a few Google searches, but I can’t imagine a young person not enjoying it!
Finally, I’d add Felicia Day’s memoir You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). Today’s teenagers have never known life without the Internet (at least here in the U.S.). They have always been able to talk to anyone in the world with an Internet connection, find data on any topic with just a few keystrokes, and learn how to do whatever interests them. It’s beautiful because it opens the door to being totally yourself and doing whatever it is that you desire to do, while on the other hand it’s unfortunate because you’re simultaneously exposed to all of humanity’s awfulness. Felicia Day, “Queen of the Geeks,” has experienced it all, and describes her experiences — from discovering people who were just like her as a child to getting doxxed (i.e., having your personal information, such as your name, address, phone number, and credit card information, leaked online) as an adult — eloquently and with lots of humor. Between overcoming anxiety, depression, and gaming addiction, surviving #Gamergate, being an extremely successful online entrepreneur and entertainer, and figuring out how to use the Internet to help her be herself, she’s really relevant as a role model.
Fortunately I’m homeschooling my little one, so I make the reading lists now! 🙂
What is one book that you had to read for school?
This was no ordinary war. This was a war to make the world safe for democracy. And if democracy was made safe, then nothing else mattered — not the millions of dead bodies, nor the thousands of ruined lives.
This is no ordinary novel. This is a novel that never takes the easy way out: it is shocking, violent, terrifying, horrible, uncompromising, brutal, remorseless and gruesome… but so is war.
Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo is an absolutely gut-wrenching read about a young man who goes off to war with a girlfriend and all the opportunity of youth only to return with — well, with what you get out of war: nothing. Or less than nothing. I won’t spoil it for those who don’t know what occurs because I can remember the marrow-chilling shock of it as I came to realize what was going on as I read. It’s one of the most important (and brutally, unforgivingly honest) books I’ve ever read and though it was so hard to swallow and gave me an absolute horror of what happened to Johnny happening to me, I’m so glad that I did. It’s an absolute favorite of mine but it is so difficult to absorb that I have only read it once.
What genre was it in? Is it something that you normally read?
It is historical fiction, which I frequently read, but it is also a novel about war, and I almost never read books on war.
Would you have picked up this book by yourself?
Probably not, or only because it is a classic. If I had known the details of what goes on in the book, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t pick it up these days; I prefer books and entertainment that gives me pleasure. As an angsty teenager, though, the opposite was true, of course, haha! So I may have picked it up on my own back then.
What activities did your class do with this book?
We discussed it and wrote essays. Besides being connected to what we’d read in one way or another, the essays we wrote for our readings didn’t have to follow any specific pattern or be on any particular topic so long as they weren’t summaries — we were absolutely forbidden from writing book reports. As Barbara so astutely pointed out, she already knew what the books were about so she didn’t need to read our clunky descriptions of them. (We could even write fiction or make visual — or even edible! — art based on the work if we chose to and Barbara gave us her blessings.) My essay was on severe anxiety and depression, which I suffered from at the time, being very similar to what Johnny experiences.
POSSIBLE (IF VERY VAGUE) SPOILERS AHEAD
With anxiety and depression, you’re trapped behind a pane of glass, unable to interact with the world the way you want to, and you’re not at all yourself. While I cannot at all claim to know what it’s like to go to war and can barely even imagine it, I could strongly relate to certain passages within Johnny Got His Gun because they could be seen as metaphors for what I was going through and had been going through since I was ten or eleven. Another reason the book is so important to me, and that I’m so grateful I got exposed to it when I did!