There’s something oxymoronic about this topic: “favorite” and “required” don’t usually go together for me. I grew up a bibliophile and usually had several reads in progress at any given time, but the moment someone made a book mandatory, it became onerous (on at least one occasion I threw a screaming fit at being forced to read a novel not of my own choosing). However, reading lists introduced me to a few gems I’m happy to share with you on this Top 5 Wednesday. I confined my selections to formal school reading lists, as my various book discussion groups often chose titles by committee and therefore the reading wasn’t truly mandatory. Without further ado, here’s this rebel’s favorite required reading.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
One of my favorite required books started out as my most loathed. My middle school thought it would look prestigious on the 8th grade reading list, but at age thirteen I thought it was the dullest and most pompous book I’d ever read. I curled my lip at it whenever I passed it in the bookstore and felt very worldly in proclaiming my disdain for Aldous Huxley. Five years later, I encountered my nemesis in a college class. A less neurotic student might have fudged the assignment, but my Hermione Granger-like obsession with top grades drove me to re-read the book. And I’m so glad I did, because I loved it. I could hardly believe it was the same story. By eighteen I’d matured enough to appreciate the book, but without that class, I would continued snubbing it forever. Thanks, Professor Trethaway!
To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Like most readers of this American classic, I first encountered it on a school reading list. Since then I’ve read it at least twice more. At the risk of sounding like an unimaginative, cliched English major, it really is one of my favorite books of all time. (Confession: I haven’t yet read “Go Set A Watchman” for fear of ruining the original story in my head.)
The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley
This swashbuckling tale of desert tribes and sorcery was a favorite in my family for years before I bumped into it my senior year of university, in a Children’s Lit seminar. I wouldn’t categorize it as a children’s story, but I welcomed the excuse to read it again. Of course, the class also tried to spoil the book for me by pairing it with a critical essay painting the heroine is a passive instrument of fate rather than a butt-kicking warrior girl who discovers her magical heritage. Really, why can’t academics just enjoy a good story and leave it alone?
The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
Oh, 20th Century Popular Lit. The only class with the guts to take a critical approach to Harlequin Romance novels. Smuggling pink paperbacks out of a used bookstore wasn’t the highlight of my college career, but it was worth it, because after the romance segment we turned to mystery novels. Thus I became acquainted with Raymond Chandler. His lush descriptions and edge storytelling influenced my own writing style. It also prompted me to explore the noir fiction genre, inspiring a series of mystery novels I will one day put on paper.
The Botany of Desire, by Michael Pollan
No one said this list had to be fiction! I read this book for an ethnobotany class and it changed my opinion of non-fiction forever. Pollan’s elegant prose reads like poetry, tenderly revealing the fascinating secrets of plants. It made me realize that scientific writing doesn’t have to be a technical snoozefest; it can be dynamic, descriptive, and as deeply engaging as any flight of imagination. This is the book that made me want to become a science writer.