The Literary Canon

What to Read as an American

Frankenstein

This 1818 novel by Mary Shelley has created a popular culture icon in the terms of a monster that they call "Frankenstein," even though that is the name of the scientist, not the monster. Besides the fact that there are numerous references to the idea of the Frankenstein monster, the book has a message of great importance for all readers. The book warns of what will happen to those who play God and mess with nature, themes that are only reinforced by Shelley's references to Paradise Lost and Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I feel literary canons are meant to teach students what we value as a society and I think we value the idea of nature being left alone and of people not trying to elevate themselves to another level. Understanding this book is important to learn what a monster is, as Frankenstein is the monster, not his creation. Frankenstein is a book of lessons tied up in a pop culture icon. We are expected to read this to understand the references and what we learn is to be human, not God.
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1984

This George Orwell classic is one of the most well-known dystopian books to ever be written. References to 'Big Brother,' '2+2=5" and the mottos of The Party litter the world's everyday happenings and conversations. I think this book also helps to teach the dangers of a totalitarian government, including blindly agreeing with others. It's important for teengers to recognize this both on a small and large scale. Students face peer pressure everyday, so learning the dangers of blind agreement helps them learn to challenge that pressure. Teens are also about to go into the world and lead the country, so learning about dangerous governments can help to prevent destruction of society. We are expected to read this to know allusions to extreme government control like "Big Brother" and we should read it to learn these dangers.
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The Great Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most quintessential writers of the Lost Generation, a group of writers who wrote after WWI. I think an important lesson for people to learn from this book is that wealth is not a save-all and makes all your problems disappear immediately. We do value wealth as a society, but I think this book warns us that wealth is not the best thing in life. Both Daisy and Gatsby were denied of love, but had glorious wealth. Outsiders probably saw them as wonderfully happy, but they were the opposite. This portrayal of the 1920s and its extravagance is accurate in showing students the lifestyle of the time period as well. We are expected to read this book for its culture and to learn about the time. We learn about what we should truly vale while reading this book: love and family.
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Lord of the Flies

This classic novel shows readers just how easy it is for any of us to “become evil.” If we are not inherently evil, we all at least have the capacity to become so. Golding saw the horrible acts of people during the WWII period and he wanted to show ordinary people were capable of horrific actions. Lord of the flies means Beelzebub, so Golding also had deeper meaning in evil. The book abruptly ended with the arrival of civilization, another reminded of how close we always are to crossing that line into savagery. We are expected to know this story because of its exposition of the human nature, but we need to know it so we can avoid crossing the thin line of good versus evil.

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To Kill A Mockingbird

One of the most famous American novels ever written, To Kill a Mockingbird, has certainly earned itself a place in any literary canon. It is too universal and timeless with the childlike bluntness teaching every reader a valuable lesson against racism. Even if racism was fully eradicated, this novel would teach about how wrong it is to judge people based on something as trivial as that. Children do not see the societal barriers between different races, classes or other societal constructs and Scout’s observations make readers realize just how insignificant these labels are. People may reference the title of this book or even compare someone to Tom Robinson, Atticus or even Boo Radley, so it may be important to know these in an educated discussion. It is expected that you can discuss this book and its themes, but you should learn what Scout and Atticus already know: race, and other trivialities do not matter.


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Macbeth

While Shakespeare is too often regarded as the epitome of good literature, he does have good works accredited to his name, often with some sort of lesson accompanying them. His plays were meant to entertain, but that does not mean a warning did not underlie the iambic pentameter and the lavish costumes. We are expected as a society to at least be familiar with Shakespeare’s repertoire, but I think Macbeth is an important one for us to be familiar with, because it has a very clear warning that we can actually relate to hundreds of years later. Ambition with too much greed does not make for a happy ending. This warning is what this particular play teaches us.


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The Crucible

This play is an allegory representing the McCarthyism that was infesting the United States during the time of the Red Scare, where everyone was being accused of being Communists. It is slightly altered to the original events, but it is basically a dramatic telling of the Salem Witch Trials. Accusations are thrown across the town in rapid succession, taking down ladies and gentlemen from all walks of life. We see the danger and the outright absurdness of calling people out for little to no reason. I think we are expected to know this story because of what it warns us against, as well as what it reminds us of. Learn the dangers of doing such things, as John Proctor’s life was ruined, amongst others. We value honesty and we also detest those who ruin the lives of others.


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The Grapes of Wrath

While this book has sort of a dreary tone and outlook, it is quite honest and documents a time and event often overlooked in the history books. The way it was written describes the plight of the Okies well too: dry, sad and extremely long. Steinbeck is a well known author, so being able to discuss his works is often appreciated. Readers learn practically first hand what these people went through and as a result, just why government intervention is often needed with poverty. It’s expected of people to know the great John Steinbeck but I think his writing offers more than a right to brag of what one reads; I think he offers explanations to those who find welfare a nuisance. Our society doesn’t appreciate freeloaders, but Steinbeck points out the hard fact that many of those who claim to need our help, truly do.


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The Scarlet Letter

This book concerns the universal and unfortunately timeless idea of human suffering. Most of the main characters suffer a great deal, whether it be from loneliness or scorn, but they also grow as a person and character. I think Hawthorne was trying to make the point that suffering may be bad while it happens, but it often happens for a reason and it helps one grow as a person. This is often a relatable story to teens, who often have unplanned pregnancies. This story is worse than the ostracism teens receive for it, which I think helps other teens realize why they shouldn’t judge so harshly. I feel we are expected to read this book because of its timeless themes, but also to learn not to judge people.


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Pride and Prejudice

This book is one that is actually about women and their roles in society. The whole book being centered around marriage is indicative of how women in that time had one goal of marrying well. This book satirizes these foolish customs and teaches us that it’s okay to not necessarily go along with what society expects of us. I like to get an inside look of women in older times, because they are often secondary characters or unimportant. Our main protagonist is a girl, one who does not just value marriage, but also has deep thoughts as a woman. Elizabeth Bennet is a wonderful character that would have inspired me in the days of Austen. We are expected to know this book because it teaches us about this social customs, but also that it’s okay to not value the same customs as society.


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Invisible Man

This coming of age story depicts the racial struggles of a young black man as he struggles to realize his own identity. This is sadly almost always relevant, as racism is a plague that never vacates our country fully. We all know racism exists, but I think it’s important to experience it from inside the head of this narrator who experiences it every day. Students, especially white students, are able to better understand what racism is and how good intentions do not always help. I think this book is expected to be read because it is always culturally relevant, and we learn from it the true atrocity that is racism, which better guards us for attempting to stop it.
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