Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The One Book That Hit You Hard in High School

Tuesday afternoon, I turned on the radio and tuned in to NPR. I happened to catch the final minutes of the show "The Takeaway," and listeners were calling in to tell the host, John Hockenberry, the books that had the most impact on them in high school. Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, and The Sun Also Rises were among the titles that were enthusiastically rattled off by callers who sounded more than a little nostalgic recalling the pivotal books of their youth. I had stopped what I was doing to listen, and I began to really wish that I had caught the broadcast from the beginning.

Tonight, I had a chance to listen to this edition of "The Takeaway," the podcast of which had been posted online. This edition of the show is titled "Is Literature Necessary?," and Hockenberry started things off with:

"At a certain point in school, if you got serious about reading and books, you took the leap. You went from picture-dominated kid books to real titles. The real books kids read in school are an important door to intellectual independence. The mind-meets-book relationship can be one of the first times a kid really explores his or her identity. So the world opened up when you read what?"

Immediately, listeners started calling in to reveal their favorite school reads, or they began posting them on the show's website, Hearing their selections, I wondered what book had a major effect on me when I was in high school. And I couldn't come up with an answer - at least not right away. Being in AP English, my classmates and I were assigned an incredible amount of reading. Much of it left me feeling lukewarm (or stirred a strong dislike for particular authors). Oftentimes, the books were something to slog through just to complete the assignment. I can't remember the books I chose to read; it seems whatever I was reading at that time in my life was something that needed to be read for class. Animal Farm and Catcher in the Rye were books that I picked up long after my high school years. (I still wonder if the faculty considered these books too rudimentary or too rough, respectively, for their AP English students. I enjoyed both tremendously while devouring them in early adulthood.) I guess if one book stood out for me at that time, it would be Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave: Written by Himself.

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From the very beginning, the book grabbed me. I was impressed with the title - by its length and by the fact that, in it, Douglass asserted that he was the one who wrote this story about himself. To me, that said so much, especially when I thought about who the author was and when the book was published - in the pre-Civil War United States. It was such a strong testament. Then as I got into Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, I was amazed at what he went through to arrive at the incredible person he became. I was especially moved by his determination to learn how to read; his unabashed love for the written word was in sharp contrast to the deep derision that many in my age group directed toward those who were into books or were serious about doing well in school. So I was enlightened - and bolstered - by the example that Frederick Douglass set. So, to answer John Hockenberry's question, the world opened up when I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass in high school.

To listen to Tuesday's broadcast of "The Takeaway," go to THIS LINK.

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