“Required Reading”


I have wandered back around to my focus of earlier this month, education. I began thinking about required reading in high school English classes after Pete(beetleypete)commented that Whitman wasn’t read much in England. I wonder what any of my readers were assigned in their English classes.

We read one Shakespeare play each year. Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear in that order. I assume that they thought each play was a little harder than the one the year before. No one ever connected them with each other. We got no background for the plays and stumbled through them wondering why we were reading them. But they were required.

When I got to college I realized that my high school had made no distinction between American and English authors, referring to them all as English. This was a little embarrassing to find out when sitting in an English survey and understanding I really wanted the American survey. That basic distinction would have been useful information in high school, but it was never made.

Other required reading that I remember included The Scarlet Letter, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and  The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I still have no idea why these particular works were considered essential in the early 1960’s. Thrown into each with no context, we plowed ahead because they were required.

Please share any books you were made to read in high school. I am very curious about the variety–that is if there was any.

46 thoughts on ““Required Reading”

  1. What comes to mind are the following: The Pearl, Call of the Wild, How Green was my Valley, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet. Some of those may have been from Junior High too. There’s a whole other list from college when I took Western World Lit. I loved being exposed to writers I wouldn’t have chosen on my own, or perhaps even known existed! Dostoevsky’s Underground Man comes to mind.


  2. I sat ‘A’ Level English Literature in 1977, albeit by choice not compulsion. In the UK ‘A’ Levels are normally taken aged 18 as university entrance qualifications, but I was a late developer in my twenties. In those days you could take exam question papers home afterwards, which I did, and still have them. I posted about the English Lit exams three years ago to the week, along with a few memories of the course. The post includes full scans of the three papers. I wouldn’t usually do this but as it seems so relevant the address of the post is: https://www.taskerdunham.com/2016/05/a-level-english-1977.html I hope that’s OK (please delete comment if not). There is also a later post about ‘A’ Level Geography.


  3. In England, we had ‘set books’ for literature exams. When I sat the first exams at age 16, the set books were ‘Wuthering Heights’, and Henry lV Part One, for Shakespeare. I loved them both, and wrote very long essays about them on my exam. But we were also encouraged to read other ‘non-exam’ books of course. I read a lot of Steinbeck, ‘The Catcher In The Rye’, and ‘To Kill A Mockingird’.
    Also Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, and Dickens.
    In my case, that ‘required reading’ was a pleasure.
    For the later set of exams, things got significantly more difficult, especially in French Literature. 🙂
    Best wishes, Pete.


      1. I did find them, though sometimes with the help of English Teachers and History teachers.
        The Examination Boards varied. There was either Oxford or London in England, (I had to take Oxford, although I lived in London) and Scotland and Wales had their own systems. So the books varied, but not by much. 🙂


  4. I remember being very resistant to reading The Merchant of Venice – only to find I really liked it. Other required reading.: Jane Eyre and Great Expectations.


  5. I love Shakespeare, Elizabeth and still remember enjoying reading Romeo and Juliet when I was 12. I also liked Macbeth (where would we be without Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble) and my favourite, The Taming of the Shrew. I also read the one about Shylock and the pound of flesh but its name fails me right now. Greg read the junior version of this one when he was 9, three times because he enjoyed it so much. We also had Lord of the Flies (hated that book), Mafeking Road (South AFrican and great), Cry the beloved country and Jock of the bushveld (both SA and both great). We also had Dickens, Hard Times, but I didn’t like that one. I read Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities on my own. I still like these two best.


    1. “Merchant of Venice” has Shylock. I had not heard of Mafeking Road and will look for it. I read Paton on my own in high school. I forgot that we read “Tale of Two Cities” though it didn’t stick until I read it as an adult.


      1. It was my first introduction to South Africa. I read it at the same time that I read “Strange Fruit” by Lilian Smith about lynching. Together they were quite an extracurricular education.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember having to read Ethan Frome, The Scarlet Letter, Lord of the Flies and The Great Gatsby. I didn’t care for Ethan Frome the first time I read it. Years later I read it again, and the touching, tragic story became one of my favorites.


    1. Why on earth do you think they assigned kids “Lord of the Flies.” Such a pessimistic view of life. I didn’t encounter Eliot until college, fortunately. I think my high school teacher might have put me off him.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I remember reading Othello in class for Highers. We had a terrific English teacher who brought poets and writers to the school. I listened to George Mackay Brown, Norman Mc Caig… The movie Romeo and Juliet had just been released and we were all enthralled.


  8. We were required to ‘do’ Twelfth NIght and The Merchant of Venice. We didn’t study them we read through them – badly. It put me off Shakespeare for decades. Novels included The Lord of the Flies – also put me off! In fact, I can’t recall a single book I was required to read and/or study for school that I loved and which has stayed with me. That’s very sad.


  9. We had to read Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet. We were given a choice in junior high between a book about Hiroshima or Auschwitz, and I chose Auschwitz. I don’t really see the point of the former required readings, but absolutely love the latter. I also feel that books and content on the Underground Railroad should have been required, what lessons of the human spirit could have been learned! I recall the book Black Like Me was floating around too, but it wasn’t required. I can’t really recall most of what we had to read…which tells us what? Bingo!


  10. Oh dear. Literature for me was much different. We also did one Shakespeare per year starting in 7th grade. 7th grade they went easier on us and let us read a book of short stories that were created from Shakespeare’s plays. I want to say it was written by Ian Serallier (sp?) But I could be wrong.

    We picked apart every Shakespeare novel the way we did all the others. We looked at symbolism and the background behind Shakespeare’s writing. We also distinguished between the background of all our books. Our three literature semesters were usually one of each for African American, West Indian, and British.


      1. Hmmmm….I don’t remember all the titles off the top of my head, but these two stand out:

        “Green Days By the River” by Michael Anthony

        “Annie John” by Jamaican Kincaid

        Annie John is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read. It was also my first introduction to the concept of depression.

        I’ll see if I can find the others. I think my school now posts the book lists up on the school website. I’ll check!


        1. I taught Kincaids’ “At The Bottom of The River,” though not “Annie John.” My students had a great time imitating her list of all the things her mother warned her about. I chuckle every time remember that short story.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. That title sounds very familiar, but I don’t think my school did that book. Other schools might have. Also, my high school website is still down. Not sure what’s up with that. It was up a few months ago.


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