To begin my post with the beginning of my post, I record that my daughter has finally finished David Copperfield.
For those of you who were not literature majors, the above is a humorous (I hope) allusion to the opening of that famous and famously massive tome. Dickens' semi-autobiographical novel was my teen's summer assignment for high school freshman Honors English.
If you ever want to hear a fourteen-year-old piss and moan, make them read a 950-page book written in long-winded nineteenth century language, during their vacation. The pool is open, the beach may beckon, but — alas! — throughout our town, young people were mired in the sooty streets of London, trying to keep track of countless characters with names like Clara Peggotty, Uriah Heep, Tommy Traddles, Wilkins Micawber, Steerforth, Ham and Little Em'ly.
Help! It's enough to make you throw in the towel and watch Pretty Little Liars on demand.
If the school's purpose was to separate the academic wheat from the chaff, then they may well have succeeded. We already know at least one girl who had qualified for and planned to take Honors English but is dropping out.
Sadly, if their plan was to permanently dissuade students from ever picking up a Dickens volume again, they may have accomplished that as well. Wouldn't these, already acknowledged bright, kids have been better off reading a shorter option (Great Expectations comes to mind)? Wouldn't they have appreciated it more if they had waited until school started so that a teacher might have guided them through it?
I am seriously annoyed that an entire generation will view the writings of Charles Dickens as an ordeal to get through rather than the incredibly rich — and often quite funny — masterpieces they are.
Nevertheless, the assignment was the assignment and my little scholar persevered. Out of curiosity, I looked into the required reading for sophomore, junior and senior years to see what future summers had in store. Here's what I found:
Freshman Honors English: David Copperfield
Sophomore Honors English: Dracula
Junior Honors English: Slaughterhouse Five
Senior Honors English: Heart of Darkness
What's conspicuously missing from this list? Books by and/or about women.
Across the country, female high school students are "overrepresented" in Honors and AP courses. This is particularly true in subjects that are humanities and language-based. I did a quick local reality check with my daughter.
"Are there more girls or boys in Honors English?" I asked.
"Girls, duh," came the eye-rolling reply.
So, why all the macho material? I am reminded (painfully reminded) of the way Hollywood approaches the funding of feature films. The major studios claim that they have to produce more male-centric films (despite the fact that women represent more than 50% of moviegoers) because:
"Women will go to men's movies. But, men won't go to women's movies."
Extend this theory to the summer reading list. I can only assume that the list is heavy on the testosterone because teachers or school administrators or the state believe that girls will read boys' books, but boys won't read girls'.
Remember, these are not so-called "reluctant readers" who must be coerced and bribed with graphic novels. These are high-achieving high school English students. Would it really hurt for the (minority of) boys to read about a woman's life for a change? Clearly, no one is worried about the girls throwing a hissy fit when they must read hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds and hundreds) of pages about the opposite sex. Why are we coddling the boys? And why are we ignoring so many amazing works by women?
I think my only option is to create an adjunct English literature reading list for my daughter. I'll fill it with Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Elliot and Mary Shelley. She will read these classics and love them and know that men weren't the only ones writing great works.
Assuming that, after her long drawn out and deadly dull date with Mr. Copperfield, she ever cracks a book again.