I have read twenty-one novels, eleven plays, and three anthologies in my four years of Blake English classes. Now, as a near-alumni, I find myself reflecting on the stories I read, and wanting to read the best ones again.
In ninth grade World Literature with Cory Tao we read twelve books. Far and away my favorites were The Ramayana translated by R.K. Narayan and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. These books were perfect insights into worlds which I have never seen or learned much about before. I loved the plot and characters of The Ramayana and the complex character development in Things Fall Apart. Both books taught me a lot about literary devices, whether it be the intense similes of Things Fall Apart or the small origin stories in The Ramayana, and I loved learning about the device and then seeing it put into action by reputable and talented writers from around the world.
In tenth grade American Literature with Patrick Barry we read eleven books, my favorites being Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and The Color Purple by Alice Walker, even though both novels had tricky phonetic language. Although some parts proved difficult, Barry never let my class give up on a passage. Instead, Barry asked us to stick with the uncomfortable feeling that we didn’t always know what the author was trying to convey and learn from that feeling. Barry always said that a seemingly unreadable passage doesn’t beg to be overlooked, but actually begs the reader to spend more time with those words, metaphors, and characters. I now never shy away from difficult language or ideas (even in Train Dreams by Denis Johnson).
In eleventh grade AP English with Scott Hollander we read eleven books. I loved especially the realness and vulnerability of the characters in Angels in America by Tony Kushner and the pictures and stories of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. I thought reading a graphic novel would be simple, but the images added an extra layer of interpretation. The words alone needed interpretation, but frames, frame size, colors, patterns, and all other visual effects needed to be analyzed as well. While Watchmen is not an old classic, I am forever grateful to have read the story and learn from the characters, just as I had from every other book.
In twelfth grade Literary Essay and Creative Writing with Elizabeth Ben-Ozilio I read only How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen, but a lot of the reading were short stories, poems, and graphic novels which could not be represented as books. My two twelfth grade English electives were writing intensive, so a lot of the work done outside of class was crafting stories ourselves, taking our education from the past three years and applying it to our own lives, and for this I am so glad I took creative writing courses my senior year.
I may be a reading lover who tries to read every night before bed, but Blake’s English curriculum has still stretched me. I have learned innumerable lessons and writing techniques from these books, and even more from my teachers, Tao, Barry, Hollander, and Ben-Ozilio. I have learned how to recognize good writing, how to then write a good essay, how to analyze tough sections of a story, and how to relate these stories to my life. That’s the point of reading all 35 of these books; to gain a new worldly understanding, to learn how to empathize even with the black and white words of a novel, and to understand a culture or story different from my own. It is not always appreciated, the sheer volume of reading Blake students do every night, but, in the end, we all gain so much from diving into a different world and simply reading.
Photo above: From far left to end of vertical books, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, The Odyssey translated by Simon Armitage, Master Harold and The Boys by Athol Fugard, Words Under the Words by Naomi Shihab Nye, The Ramayana translated by R. K. Narayan, Krik? Krak! by Danticat, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Twelfth Night by Shakespeare, and Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, ninth grade reads.
From bottom to top, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories compiled by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Fences by August Wilson, Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Drown by Junot Díaz, Notes From No Man’s Land by Eula Biss, and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, tenth grade reads.
From left to right, Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, “The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Antigone by Sophocles and translated by Robert Bagg, W;t by Margaret Edson, Selected Poems by John Donne, Macbeth by Shakespeare, Angels in America by Tony Kushner, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and How To Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen, eleventh and twelfth grade books.