In the previous part of this series, I acquainted our readers with a young man named Nathan Austin. Nathan was negatively influenced by the books he read his senior year of high school, and because of that influence along with other factors, he ended up taking his own life.
Today, I want to present you with the list of books Nathan studied in his Advanced Placement (AP) class. While the books for Nathan’s class were chosen by his school faculty and administrators, these school officials didn’t just pull them out of a hat. They were intended to help Nathan pass an end of the year AP English exam and thus earn college credit. The selections were likely influenced by 1) the AP English website’s recommended list of authors, and 2) numerous websites, like this one, which track the books that appear on the AP English test most often.
Thus, Nathan’s list is important not only because it tells us about Nathan’s experience, but also because it represents what many high school students and college freshman are reading. According to the AP course description, the AP exam is intended to help students “demonstrate their mastery of college-level course work.” And while this particular list may or may not be typical of AP courses (that’s something debated below), it is worth noting that Nathan’s books were taken from a larger pool of books that any teen headed to college will likely encounter. I believe most classes will differ in degree, not kind.
Below, I have included responses from Christian professors and cultural critics about Nathan’s book list. The responses represent a fairly wide range of views among Christian thinkers. The goal here was not to get folks to parrot my opinion, but rather to solicit the honest opinions of some of the people I most highly esteem in the field.
Next week, I hope to wrap this series up with some practical suggestions for what we can do (aside from book burning!) to be salt and light for our kids and our culture when it comes to this issue.
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
- How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas Foster
- Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez
- Sonnets and Elizabethan poetry
- Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
- The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin or A Dollhouse by Henrik Ibsen
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
- Death of a Salesman, Redux
1. Gene E. Veith, Provost and Professor Literature at Patrick Henry College:
This is a pretty bleak list. It’s hard for me to blame a reading list for a suicide. People who are depressed may be helped by reading the works of a depressed author since it tells them they are not alone. And I have known at least one suicidal person who was talked OUT of suicide by reading Hamlet, which is on this list, which is the best argument AGAINST suicide—even when things are at their worst—in the “To be or not to be” speech. I suppose, though, it wouldn’t have the power it does for a non-Christian since it concludes that we shouldn’t kill ourselves ultimately because “the Almighty has fixed his canon against self-slaughter” and that since there is “something after death,” suicide solves nothing and only risks divine judgment.
But two of the major works read here, the great Death of a Salesman and the over-rated The Awakening do end in suicides, presented as more or less a positive thing. The Scarlet Letter and Heart of Darkness are both about original sin and human depravity and are more or less in accord with a Christian worldview though the latter doesn’t bring in the possibility of salvation. Believing in depravity without a Christian worldview, I suppose, could drive someone to despair. (The alternative reading to The Awakening is A Doll’s House by Ibsen, which ends with a woman abandoning her family as an act of feminist liberation. That suggests that the course used these works to explore feminist themes.)
My impression of this list is that it is too “adult” for a high school reading list. That is, the works deal with issues that are beyond the experience and thus the understanding of young people (in the case of the two works I just mentioned, a life of working without meaning and an unhappy marriage). How can a teenager relate to that? Exposing them to such things could, I suppose, dash the hopes of a young adult looking forward to a career and to marriage, but I’m not sure adolescents have the mindset even for that. More likely it would cause them to look down on their parents, certain that they themselves won’t follow that path.
I think these works could be taught to young adults if they were framed by worldview issues and a Christian perspective. ([A teacher could say,] “Notice how the Loman family in Death of a Salesman makes no mention of church or prayer or faith, as they go through their struggles. What difference would it make if Willie Loman understood the Christian doctrine of vocation?” That, actually, would be a very interesting entry into this play, and it makes me want to teach it again, as I have several times to college students, with no suicides! “Notice how The Awakening comes out of 19th-century materialism. How does that show up in both the wife and the husband? Why is feminism connected to that view of the world? etc., etc.) I sincerely doubt that the course supplied any of that perspective, much of which could be done even in a secular classroom.
2. Tony Reinke, author and cultural critic at Desiring God:
The key question is how these books were taught. There’s a lot of dark realism here in this list, which can be used well to help see into the darkness of the human heart. But the fact that the outline begins and ends with Death of a Salesman, a book about suicide, stands out to me in this case. To The New York Times (May 15, 1940), Arthur Miller describes the concern which he sought to set forth in writing it: “It is the fear that one has lied to oneself over a period of years in relation to one’s true identity and what one should be doing in the world. What the play does is to make the individual ask himself whether his rationalizations about himself are not leading him to an ultimate rendezvous with a dreadful reckoning.” As Willy Loman discovers, none of our sins are hidden in the end. Without a robust understanding of the hope of the gospel, this can easily escalate despair. To be honest, I’m not sure I could teach these books without at some point explaining: the world is more messed up than we realize, our hearts are darker than we think, and we are more loved by God in Christ than we have ever dared to imagine.
As a Christian, knowing the power of dark realism and its ability to awaken the reality of despair in the heart, I would not permit my children to study these works apart from a clear application of the gospel (in class or at least at home). Despair is not good existential art; despair is a powerful force of hopelessness in a fallen world that can take root in the heart of any self-aware human. Mix despair with a frequent dismissal of the Church in these books, then top that with a postmodern context that denies religious absolute truth, and you end up with a potential disaster. In my opinion, any study of despair through dark realism, if simply left as despair, is like studying fire in a science class without a fire extinguisher on the wall. We must be careful. Using literature to awakening despair in the heart of a child or teen, without the hope of the gospel, is spiritual ignorance or spiritual negligence, or both.
3. From Karen Swallow Prior, Professor of English at Liberty University:
Yes, this reading list leans heavily toward darkness and death. I don’t think this in and of itself is necessarily problematic. More important than what one reads is how that reading is presented, taught, and explained—as well as the larger context which forms the student’s entire reading diet. For example, some young readers (as well as many older ones!) heavily consume light, romantic works that can skew their understanding of how people, relationships, and life operate. Such reading that instills a pair of proverbial “rose-colored glasses” can lead to a life of endless disenchantment and great discontentment with the real world. I contend, therefore, that “dark” literature is no more likely to mislead than “romantic” literature. Certainly, differences in personality and temperament play a part, too.
Furthermore, for most healthy young readers, reading works that deal with doubt, pain, and darkness can serve to concretize the normal fears and anxieties of growing up, offering a way to examine such at an objective distance as a part of a healthy coping and maturing process. Obviously, there are fragile exceptions to this that no one might be able to predict.
Most important, however, is how such literature—any literature—is presented. No literary work should be expected or understood to be presenting total truth. But hope can be revealed even for the unseasoned reader and even from as dark a work as Death of a Salesman when the great truths beneath the dark surface of the play are brought to light. Such is the role of the teacher. The significance of the worldview commitments of the person who fulfills that role cannot be overestimated.
I think the most important thing a parent can do to help a child develop critical reading skills—the skills that keep them from being passive consumers—is to read the works with them and initiate conversations about the works. This particular class was an AP class, not a required class. If the student were not emotionally healthy or mature enough for the reading, perhaps another class could have been taken offering less emotionally challenging material.
4. Trevin Wax, author and cultural critic at The Gospel Coalition:
5. Douglas Bond, author and high school English teacher: