What is an enjoyable novel, with depth, suitable for freshman comp?
April 11, 2016 12:23 PM   Subscribe

As I teach it now, my first semester composition course is geared toward inquiry. My primary text is From Inquiry to Academic Writing, and Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. I'm on the hunt for a new novel.

For the past two semesters, in addition to the primary text, which I've chosen for the complexity and currency of its readings selection, I've also had my students read Cline's Ready Player One because it is accessible and readable for my community college freshies while still exploring many of the issues we've been reading and analyzing from the primary textbook (e.g., gender, race, corporate power, internet, stereotyping, education, privacy, authenticity, and so on). It also has its downsides, including its pretty basic reading level and all the 1980s foreknowledge needed. Thus, my search for an alternative reading selection.

I want to emphasize that genre is not an issue, here (though I'm a bit loathe to genre-cast in dystopian sci-fi), nor is it even necessary that the book is a novel. I'm open to memoir, essays, history, and so on. What I've liked about RPO is the variety of issues my students can dig out, explore, and refine, and that my students can relate to the characters and are motivated by the story to read to the end. I'm not unwilling to continue with RPO for few more semesters, but I'd love to have options. Do you have suggestions that might fit?
posted by girlbowler to Education (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My go-to suggestion for reluctant readers is Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. It's an accessible, well-written, and engaging read, resonates with a wide audience, and brings up a lot of themes that people tend to be eager to discuss.

Bonus -- you can also show/recommend the movie, which is a very decent adaptation.
posted by veery at 12:46 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

I don't know whether this would work or not, since I no longer can enter the brain of that age, but Paul Murray's most recent book, "The Mark and the Void", is a really fun (for me) read that it seems you could mine for a lot of the issues you point out.
posted by janey47 at 12:52 PM on April 11, 2016

Have you considered graphic novels/memoirs? They can be very accessible and also have lots of literary value for your class. Based on the things you mention, I'm thinking these might work for you:
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
- Blankets by Craig Thompson
posted by ourobouros at 12:59 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I used to teach Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow for freshman comp. The students always loved it, and there are so many complex issues even above and beyond the religious ones presented in the book.
posted by archimago at 1:33 PM on April 11, 2016 [1 favorite]

I hate to disagree, but just as another data point: Into the Wild was not very successful as the First Year Summer Read at our diverse, heavily female campus. I had a room full of young women of color who said, in so many words "So, this white boy threw away chances we'd love to have, walked himself into the woods, and got himself killed? Why did we read this?" I'm not saying that was the most compassionate reading, but that was how they reacted.
posted by joycehealy at 1:52 PM on April 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

Ta-Nehisi Coates's first book is a memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, that touches on a lot of the issues you mentioned. It's about growing up in Baltimore as the somewhat hapless kid of a hard-core black nationalist (ex-Black Panther, publisher of out-of-print tomes of pseudo-African mystic knowledge) father. It's entertaing as well as sad. The one potential drawback is that it's, I think deliberately, written with a presumption of background knowledge of black pop culture from the mid-80s on, e.g., uses a lot of less-accessible slang. Depending on your demographic, the kids may struggle with the unfamiliar language. Or they may eat it right up.
posted by praemunire at 1:53 PM on April 11, 2016

I used to teach Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow for freshman comp.

Wow, no. I think this book has a lot of merit and I'm not usually one for trigger warnings, but if you have any sexual abuse survivors in your class... and how would you know? Yikes.
posted by Jahaza at 1:54 PM on April 11, 2016

I don't know if you're looking for something specifically contemporary, but if classics are okay, Their Eyes Were Watching God is soooooooo much fun to teach because there is so much there and it is beautiful! Artful dialect and some of the most fantastic figurative language in standard English (imo); themes of race, gender, and class; history; interesting structure. I taught it to high school juniors (who enjoyed it), but there's plenty there for multiple readings.
posted by smirkette at 3:56 PM on April 11, 2016 [2 favorites]

We had to read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down as summer reading before my Freshman year. We were assigned to discussion groups and we were supposed to talk about it for an hour, but we talked about it for two and a half because it was so interesting.
posted by colfax at 12:00 AM on April 12, 2016

I've been trying to work Dave Eggers' The Circle into my own Freshman comp class because I think it's super accessible but also touches on a lot of important questions for today's young people. I have not read A Hologram for the King but it was a finalist for the National Book Award so you might check that out too.
posted by Owl of Athena at 9:55 AM on April 12, 2016

I taught high school (upper level, all college-bound, many headed to Ivy League) for a lot of years. My suggestions, based on that:
--Into Thin Air
--Me Talk Pretty One Day
--The Things They Carried

Most high schools don't teach non-fiction, though that is slowly changing. So other than TTTC, many students would be unfamiliar with those works.

If you're looking at fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God or Toni Morrison's Beloved are good choices for non-dead-white-guy lit. I also love Jodi Picoult's The Storyteller - it weaves together two narratives masterfully, and gives you lots of moral issues/dilemmas to pick apart.

You might reject my next suggestion out of hand, but I've taught it in 12th grade, and found that it was some of the best discussion in my 12 years of teaching: Looking for Alaska, by John Green. There's not a movie of it (yet) and my students universally loved it. It's slightly dated in some ways (the boys in a private boarding school share a pay phone in a hallway), but the mystery in the book is about imagining other people complexly, being willing to live with uncertainty, and coming to terms with tragedy.

Last suggestion. The first book I read in college, and one that profoundly changed the way I think, was Man's Search for Meaning. As a kid looking for meaning in suffering, that was revelatory for me.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:18 PM on April 12, 2016 [1 favorite]

"A Map of Home" by Randa Jarrar is a book that even a few years later has really stuck with me. I remember it being very accessible and very funny even though the story was definitely more dramatic.

Also, I just finished "The Haunting of Hill House" by Shirley Jackson and not only was it an interesting, engaging, and totally spooky read, but there were also a lot of layers there to unpack, and it has a really good example of an unreliable narrator. I know that one's a little older at this point, but I really liked it, and I thought it was very accessible.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:57 AM on April 14, 2016

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