This post is part of Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday memes, the back to school edition: top 10 favourite books read in school (ETA: I misinterpreted this; it should have been books you wish had been required reading in school…but, oh well, I’ll stick with what I wrote). This response is a bit of a cheat as I’m counting primary, secondary, college, and university…in part because I can’t remember 10 books at each level, but collectively, I should be able to pull something together. I’m going to see what I can remember without having to do any research (i.e. the ones that have lingered) and I’m not including the Readers/Anthologies (which had story excerpts and was mostly what we did, as I remember it, at the primary and lower secondary level) though I do credit them for introducing me to the works of Michael Anthony, Merle Hodge, Derek Walcott, and other Caribbean writers. I’m featuring only full novels here (which leaves out poetry collections I loved like the ones by Keats and Shelly; and collected tales like Chaucer’s, which I can’t say I loved as much). Here goes:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird – I did this one in secondary school and it is still one of my favourite books of all time. Harper Lee’s exploration of family and race in the deep south is an enduring morality tale dealing with societal issues relevant to this day; with engaging characters like Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo Radley, Tom Robinson, Calpurnia, and, of course, Atticus Finch.
2. The Lonely Londoners – Sam Selvon’s tale of Caribbean immigrants in the UK, which I was introduced to in college, did not mark my introduction to his work – no I’d read A Brighter Sun in secondary school before it got booted from the reading list. He wrote our lives with a vibrancy and realism that resonated.
3. Shakespeare – yes, I know the bard is a man and not a book but I did several of his published plays, beginning with The Tempest in secondary school and continuing with the likes of King Lear in college, plus his poetry (including my favourite Sonnet 116), but there is simply too much to choose from. But if I had to, of the ones I did, it would probably be Othello and Twelfth Night. Elizabethan english can be a challenge for a Caribbean girl but once I was able to hear the poetry of it and the ways it speaks to character and society (“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;/ ‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;/But he that filches from me my good name/Robs me of that which not enriches him,/And makes me poor indeed” – yes, I just quoted Iago, he was slime but he wasn’t wrong there) I got it.
4. Song of Solomon – This novel which I studied at the University of the West Indies (UWI) is still my favourite Toni Morrison (though I also like The Bluest Eye, Jazz, Sula, and others). As with other books from that time like Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow it introduced me to the African-American experience as written by its scribes and the ways we are linked to each other, and to home, Africa.
5. Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston is only one of the Harlem Renaissance writers we studied, also at UWI. Others that stuck were Langston Hughes, his poetry, and Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. These are books that I connect to my appreciation for jazz and the blues, and the joy and grit to be found in pain and celebration of our existence in spite of that pain. Janie is a favourite literary heroine of mine to this day and Zora’s story both gives me life (for the adventures she embraced) and saddens me (for how she died and the obscurity she endured for too long) before being re-introduced to us by Alice Walker (see: In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens).
6. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga is a coming of age story at its core, a feminist work in many ways, and my first real introduction (along with Changes by Ama Ata Aidoo) to African literature – and this was at UWI; too late I’d say for a Caribbean girl of African descent.
7. The Great Gatsby – This F. Scott Fitzgerald book, along with Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Miller’s Death of a Salesman and the like were my introduction to that elusive thing called the American Dream (or the 20th century angst over the nightmare that the dream had become), though I suppose I’d been reading about it all along (having read so many American books growing up though not with a focus on themes as we did at UWI). This, because of the way it captured the spirit of an age, was perhaps the most invigorating of the ones I read.
8. To Shoot Hard Labour – okay this Antiguan and Barbudan post-slavery narrative by Smith and Smith, wasn’t an official text, or even a literature text, but I was introduced to it in secondary school by a history teacher. Along with From Columbus to Castro by Eric Williams, which I was introduced to at college, I believe, it began the re-focusing of the lens through which I had been taught to view our history.
9. Lord of the Flies – this Golding book was another secondary school text; I’m honestly not sure I loved it but I damn sure remember it (“Kill the pig! Cut his throat!” – yikes!).
10. Great Expectations – I really enjoyed this work by Dickens and its deep dive in to the class structures in Victorian era England; it was rough for those on the bottom rung but the Mrs. Havershams of the world certainly didn’t seem happy even with all their wealth. This is one of two British classic novelists whom I remember enjoying during my college years (certainly more than, say, Defoe); the other was Regency era author and enduring favourite (Pride and Prejudice, anyone?) Jane Austen whose book Persuasion was another primary text. Thinking back on it, if I’m remembering right (it’s been a while), I think the thing I liked about Dickens and Austen was the way the main characters in the named texts, as I remember it, were contrarians in their way, possessing a self-determination beyond what their station prescribed.
Bonus mentions: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy, Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin, Native Son by Richard Wright…
Finally, I’ve been fortunate to have some of my books read in educational institutions as well – especially, The Boy from Willow Bend and more recently Musical Youth on school readings lists here in the Caribbean. Years ago, I even received an email about The Boy from Willow Bend from a university student in Italy who had selected it from options presented for a course she was taking, which was cool. Dancing Nude in the Moonlight was also one teacher’s pick at one secondary school that I’m aware of for a time (my understanding is there were objections to its content so it didn’t last long); Oh Gad! was once added to a reading list at a US college; and my story Amelia at Devil’s Bridge has been studied here and there (Belize, US that I’m aware of) and is now excerpted in a CSEC study guide. Sometimes the books we discover in school are a chore, but every now and again we discover a book that becomes a favourite for life; I can only hope one of my books becomes one of those.