Friday, August 31, 2007

Required reading

As most readers of this feature know, I have an 11-year old son named Ben. Ben will be heading off to middle school this week and thus returning to the tender mercies of the Mounds View School District. Ben loves to read; a fella could get a hernia hoisting all the library books we get during the summertime. Since Ben is such a voracious reader, he manages to cover lots of literary territory. But there's a catch.

Because he's 11, he's quickly moving into oppositional mode when it comes reading suggestions from his dear old Dad. I put together a brief summer reading list for him and he fought me all the way on it. I had three books that I wanted him to read:

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I think these are sensible enough choices - the first two concern boys and the challenges of growing up in a world where adult supervision is either absent or lacking, while the third is one of the best treatments of the Soviet Union ever recorded, but written in the form of a fairy tale. Well, the boy balked at all of them. He read parts of all three, but put them all aside, instead turning his attention a variety of other books, including several by one of my favorite contemporary authors, the sportswriter John Feinstein. He's also read at least a dozen history-themed books this year, including works on World War I and the American Revolution.

As I ponder Ben's reading choices, I can certainly understand why he might not want to read what I present to him. I was 11 years old back in 1975 and my interests then were similar to his; I read and re-read "Hockey Stars of 1975" at least a dozen times that year. I also muscled up to read William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" that year, mostly to show off. Eleven year old kids are, in the main, contrarians; it would be unfair of me to expect my son to be any different.

But it got me to thinking: what are the books an 11-year old boy should know? One of the biggest challenges we have is that we don't have a commonality of knowledge in ways we used to. You may recall E.D. Hirsch's late 1980s book, "Cultural Literacy." In it Hirsch laments the lack of common knowledge among Americans. I've long agreed with him about this - common knowledge, like common courtesy, common sense and common decency, are actually uncommon these days.

So I'm throwing it open: what are the books an 11-year old boy should know? My readership is usually pretty intelligent and sophisticated, only rarely slack-jawed and drooling, so I'd be curious to see what you think.


Uncle Ben said...

That's an excellent question. I read voraciously all through my childhood and so I should remember some good books, but it's a bit hazy in between The Hardy Boys and Crime and Punishment. All three of the books that you mentioned were in there as well as The Count of Monte Cristo, The Oxbow Incident, Tom Sawyer, Of Mice and Men (didn't like it), The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)...

Anonymous said...

I too read books continuosly when I was young. I'm thankful that the reading that I did was essentially by my choice.

An 11 year old should be in fifth or sixth grade. At that age, I had tackled all of the Encyclopedia Brown Books, Every book in the Boxcar Children Series by Gertrude Chandler Warner, many books about history and of course sports books. I did attempt some more mature books at that age, but really didn't get some of the things because I hadn't yet experienced life.

With all due respect to Mr Dilletante, the Lord of the Flies, and Animal Farm are pretty heady stuff for a boy the age of your son. I don't doubt that he's intelligent and is prepared intellectually to read them, but is he really prepated from a maturity standpoint.

Rather than trying to foist specific books upon him, I'd recommend asking him what he likes, and making suggestions from there. The truth of it all is that when asked what an 11 year old boy should be reading, the answer really should be: "Whatever he likes within reason, as long as he's reading.

Mark said...

Good surggestions, Ben - Crime and Punishment would certainly be a challenge for him; I'm thinking later.

Thanks too for your comments, anonymous. Ben is a voracious reader - he had Encyclopedia Brown pretty much done by the end of 3rd grade and he's read all the original Boxcar Children books and dozens of the post-Gertrude Chandler Warner ghosts ones, too; he owns about 75-80 of these volumes.

As for the maturity issue, it's a valid concern. What Ben has been doing most of the summer is reading books that I've checked out from the library, especially those concerned with sports. I've recently been reading a lot of John Feinstein and Ben has pretty much read all of those as well - he's especially fond of "A Season on the Brink," which deals rather severely with Bob Knight and his penchant for mind games, and ahem, adult language.

Lord of the Flies is the one I'm most interested in him reading; I had thought he'd bite because one of Ben's favorite books is "Hatchet," which is the story of a young boy who survives a plane crash and has to figure out how to survive; he has a hatchet and that's about all. Ben loves camping and adventure (more so than I do, incidentally) and because of that I thought he might be interested. As I mentioned in the post, I think most of his opposition stems from his general rejection of most of my suggestions; he is now entering the age where he thinks I'm stupid about a great many things. When I was 11, my beloved father was a bit of a dunderhead too, in my estimation, so I understand it. But I take my shots because he does listen to some things I tell him. That's all you can do.