Parents often think fate has singled their children out for poorly chosen school reading assignments. It hasn’t. A distressed father recently told me about seeing his high-school-age daughter’s summer reading list and realizing that it was devoted exclusively to contemporary writers such as David Eggers, Malcolm Gladwell and Barbara Ehrenreich. “This Boy’s Life,” Tobias Wolff’s highly regarded autobiography, published in 1989, was the oldest book assigned.
Whatever the list’s merits—and this is an ambitious set of books for 16- and 17-year-olds—the choices added up to a melancholy landscape of contemporary injustice, distress and dysfunction. The student’s father, a Thomas Hardy admirer, mourned the opportunity cost. I told him that summer-reading assignments are often a lot worse—at least there was no Young Adult dreck or Hobbit Lit here—but he asked if I could come up with an alternative reading list.