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In Search of the Novel

Why Do I Have To Read This Book?

The qualities of the ten novels chosen are explored to see why they appear on recommended reading lists and what makes them award winners. The program also looks at the essential elements of good writing and storytelling.

Goals and Objectives

Upon completion of this workshop lesson, teachers will be able to:

  1. Help students take personal pleasure in reading assigned novels.
  2. Help students recognize why great novels can enlarge their lives.
  3. Design a lesson plan that gives students the tools and the encouragement for becoming lifetime readers of great literature.

Participants’ Comments and Observations

Teacher: With more emphasis on test scores and reading and there are more prescribed texts coming our way, you may or may not like the choices, but you have to teach them. I’ve always found the only thing that ever really seems to work for me is if I like the book. That makes it that much easier to present it to the kids, and the books themselves have to be kid-friendly.

Daniel Keyes: When I was young I read everything…I mean, I didn’t go anywhere without something to read. So, Hemingway, Faulkner, these, these are my teachers. I mean I learned from Hemingway to tighten up, to cut those, cut down to the bone. To shape the page as one editor taught me that I worked for and let everything that would, would not, everything that wasn’t necessary had to fall out. So it was that bare, tight prose. And then I read Faulkner and I read one sentence that went on for eighteen pages: metaphoric, loose, flowing. I said, “Wait a minute, Hemingway doesn’t have the whole answer, Faulkner.” So somewhere in between was the answer and I read them. And then I read W. Somerset, who was an eye doctor who failed. So, while the patients didn’t show up at his office he was, he was starting to write. Uh, Maugham then became a ship’s doctor but he describes in the summing up how he used to go to the library and copy out pages of other authors that he admired. Just copy them to get a sense of style. And I said, “That’s an interesting idea. If Maugham can do it, so can I.” So I started doing the same thing. Imitation is the way we learn as children. Well, I imitated the writers I admired: Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Maugham. Ultimately, of course, I knew that I would drop those and find my own style. But I learned to get a feeling for words, for language, for flow, and when I taught writing I shocked a lot of people by saying, “Begin by imitating writers whose work you admire. Eventually you’ll leave them behind and find your own, but at least you’ll get a leg up.”

Arthur Golden: Great Expectations is a book I love. And I think the first fifty pages of that book are so hot. I mean Dickens was absolutely red hot when he wrote them because they are so tight and they’re so engaging and they’re so imaginative and beautifully wrought, I think everything about it. And of course he’s famous for his vivid characters…all of them I think still very much live on in my imagination. The first time I read it I was absolutely taken away by the cleverness of it. The second time I read it I wasn’t as taken away by it and I think that Dickens does very, very many things extraordinarily well but structuring novels never seems to be one of them. Great Expectations is probably his best that I have read. It’s his most tightly constructed and it still has a lot of loose ends.

Ernest Gaines: There’re certain books that I would recommend that students read—for a certain reason. If you want to read great dialogue I could recommend Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. If you want to see a very well-structured little book, I could recommend Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby, or [if] you want to read a good book about young men in war, I can recommend All Quiet on the Western Front. You want to read a book about a young man wandering around in a big city, I can recommend Catcher in the Rye. So these are books I teach, and it might be good for them to read. But I’d say read War and Peace and I’d say read Shakespeare and I’d say read the Bible. In the Bible you’re going to find great story, great poetry, great songs. You read War and Peace, and you will find one of the greatest novels ever written. You’ll see how well a massive novel is put together. It depends on the book and the student you’re talking to.

Orson Scott Card: If you have to read it in class, then you have to consider that you’ve been sentenced to a term in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. And you serve your time. But if it’s a book you hate, that’s all you’re doing is serving time. It will have no effect on you. It will not move you because you hate it. You reject it, probably…because you don’t believe it or you just don’t care about it. And so if a teacher’s requiring you to read a book that you hate, just serve your time and get out of it when you can. Don’t fight it. I mean, give in. Read it. Later you may find that that very book means a lot to you. But at the time of reading, it doesn’t. Just because somebody tells you a book is great, even if they’re telling you, not because they learned in college that it was great, but because they loved that book, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be great for you.