If You Could Add One Book to the High School Curriculum, What Would It Be?

If you’re a teacher and you have your students read “1984” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” why not have them also read “Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia E. Butler?

Teachers often turn to the same tried and true books for high school reading assignments. So we asked a group of writers: What books would you add to the curriculum? Here are their answers.

I’d love to see Octavia E. Butler’s novel PARABLE OF THE SOWER read in more high school English classes. It’s a brilliant, endlessly rich dystopian novel that pairs well with “1984” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and it’s also a fascinating exploration of how crises can fuel new religious and ideological movements. — John Green, author of “Turtles All the Way Down”


THE BIBLE, particularly the old, beautiful translations (I personally enjoy the King James). I am no longer religious, but I regard it as a great tragedy that more people don’t study the Bible. As a work of literature the Bible has everything: poetry, philosophy, storytelling, myths, fictions, riddles, fables, parables, allegories. Its sentences both provoke and obscure, often resisting a single interpretation. They do not yield easily to our understanding. I’ve long felt that there is great value in reading a text that does not open itself up too easily, that keeps some of its secret meanings hidden. What you learn is a critical skill, the patience to read things you do not yet understand. — Tara Westover, author of “Educated: A Memoir”


I loved so many of the novels and plays I read in high school — from “Song of Solomon” to “Hamlet” — but there was a noticeable lack of poetry in my curriculum, and so for years I found myself mystified and distrustful any time a stray poem popped up on a syllabus, thinking as I did back then that all poems must be old and confusing and boring. Then, the summer before college I read GOOD WOMAN, by Lucille Clifton. It was the first collection of poetry I’d ever read all the way through, and it unlocked a love for a medium that is often poorly taught or avoided altogether. If I could design my own high school curriculum today it would include these poetry collections: “Good Woman,” by Lucille Clifton; “Look,” by Solmaz Sharif; and “The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded,” by Molly McCully Brown, all of which are beautiful and invite you to see the world a little differently. — Yaa Gyasi, author of “Homegoing”


Instead of having students read “Animal Farm” or “1984,” the usual George Orwell fare, I would offer them Orwell’s A COLLECTION OF ESSAYS, particularly “Such, Such Were the Joys,” “Charles Dickens,” “Shooting an Elephant,” “Why I Write” and “Politics and the English Language.” They’ll absorb into their intellectual bloodstreams an antidote to not just the madness of the present political regime but also, on the other end of things, the P.C. cant and “smelly little orthodoxies” of the college professors soon to be instructing them. — Thomas Mallon, author of “Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years”

I would send them to read THE EPIC OF GILGAMESH. It’s among the oldest surviving works of Western civilization, from before literature was literature. It’s my go-to whenever loss and life have tumbled me (often). Amazingly, and perhaps depressingly (When will they ever learn?), “Gilgamesh” tackles all the issues we are dealing with today: a bad leader and how he becomes an enlightened one (here’s hoping), environmental degradation, class and race — i.e. who gets to be called human — lust and love; loss and death. The language is haunting, incantatory, at the border of song and silence. There are many translations, David Ferry’s being my favorite, though Stephen Mitchell and Herbert Mason (more of an adaptation) have both tackled the epic with excellent results. Adolescents are prime for poetry: its intensity, its hormonal rhythms, its power to unpack pretense and probe deeper are in sync with that time of life. Too bad that it is usually in high school when so many young people fall out with the genre. Let’s grab them while we still can. Heck, they can even do it as their high school play, using Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Gilgamesh: A Verse Play.” — Julia Alvarez, author of “How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents”


Two years ago, I’d have had a different answer, but now I’d ask them to read Stanley Milgram’s electrifying OBEDIENCE TO AUTHORITY. When a startlingly docile population is succumbing to the often treacherous locutions of a so-called strongman, this study of our essential moral pliability takes on a fresh urgency. “Lord of the Flies,” which is already on many schools’ lists, narrates how easily children become savages, but “Obedience to Authority” relates how easily adults abdicate responsibility, and illuminates the horror that ensues when we placidly do as we are told. — Andrew Solomon, author of “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression”


I really wish someone would have pointed me toward the criminally neglected but astonishingly brilliant and entirely original essay collection THE OMNI-AMERICANS, by the genuine Renaissance man, Albert Murray. In our current moment of identity politics and multicultural Balkanization, Murray offers a vision of America in all its grandeur and maddening complexity. I wish I had read him in high school because it took me entirely too long to understand so simple and irrefutable a truth: “But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.” — Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of “Losing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd”


I would love to see Nicola Yoon’s THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR added to a high school reading curriculum. This book is about immigration, isolation and family, wrapped up in the guise of a love story. As an immigrant myself, it would have meant the world to me to read about characters experiencing and surmounting the struggles that closely mirrored my own. — Sabaa Tahir, author of “An Ember in the Ashes”


Students sometimes show up at college with the idea that economics is some kind of master science. Worse, some of them leave with that idea reinforced. Robert L. Heilbroner’s THE WORLDLY PHILOSOPHERS is an inoculation against that mistake. An accessible but serious study of Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes and more, it presents economics as “the science that has sent men to the barricades” to fight over how people should live together. This book is a resource for a time when young people have realized that those fights are not settled, when students are once again puzzling and struggling over political economy, from Trumpist kleptocracy to libertarianism to democratic socialism. — Jedediah Purdy, author of “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene”


A PEOPLE’S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, by Howard Zinn. The history of our country has always been taught from the perspective of the colonizers, but this book sets out to present the untold stories of the victims of colonization; it is the oppressed people’s history. Spoiler: Colonizers are not the heroes in this book. — Elaine Welteroth, journalist and former editor in chief of Teen Vogue

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