The speaker is Death
There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating getsture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham )
“You won’t understand what I mean now, but someday you will: the only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are—not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving—and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad—or good—it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all.”
— Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
This is a beautiful book, but a devastating read. Proceed with caution, feint of heart.
The other day I was chatting with my friend Jon about The Great Gatsby. We agreed it was totally wasted on us in high school and decided to reread it. And of course, the book is way better than you’d remember if you only ever read it out of obligation in homeroom.
Then I read Lord of the Flies for the first time, and it was one of the most intense books I’ve ever read. Seriously. It was startling, horrifying, and absolutely unfit for children. (Most of my friends read this in Junior high.) I have no idea why anyone would think this was a book for kids, except there are kids in it. Which feels a little like those commercials where some exec thought an acceptable mascot for a food product was a slightly bigger, talking version of the same food. ¹ ²
That got me thinking about all the other Great Books I’ve wasted (or SparkNotes’d, or never read at all). So I started compiling a list of high-school essentials.
I hardly remember any of these books. At sixteen I was more interested in texting girls than impressing teachers.
My current plan is to read and re-read a bunch of standard syllabus stuff. After, I’ll give a brief review and hopefully have some solid recommendations by the end.
Is it still good? Was it ever good? Is it worth reading again as an adult? These are the kinds of questions that are literally impossible to answer without reading my blog.
Here’s what I’ve got so far.*
- Lord of the Flies
- The Great Gatsby
- Where the Red Fern Grows
- Gone with the Wind
- To Kill a Mockingbird
- Brave New World
- Of Mice and Men
- The Grapes of Wrath
- Death of a Salesman
- The Metamorphosis
- The Giver
- The Outsiders
- The Diary of a Young Girl
- Heart of Darkness
- Huck Finn
- Crime and Punishment
- Count of Monte Cristo
- The Odyssey
- Old Man and the Sea
- The Power of One
- The Things We Carried
- Tuck Everlasting
- The Catcher in the Rye
- Their Eyes Were Watching God
I italicized the ones I’ve already read—but I barely remember most of them. I’m pretty sure The Outsiders was the one where Pony Boy beat up other kids. But why would they make us read that in high school? Was it good? I don’t remember.
I could still use some help though.
If you have time, let me know which books you were assigned in high school. Do any stand out as worth your time again? Let me know in the comments or on twitter or just yell really, really loud.
UPDATE — READER SUGGESTIONS:
- My name is Asher Lev
- Watership Down
- Cat’s Cradle
* I’ve intentionally left The Scarlet Letter off the list. I was forced to read it in middle school, high school, and college and I hated it every single time. It’s dense and tedious, while still managing to be totally unrewarding. I give it a Very Boring out of Five stars.
From Indian Lakes. Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco.