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.