I was born in Korea, but I immigrated to the United States at the age of six and a half, meaning that I survived almost the entirety of North American K-12 schooling. I remember learning to read in Korean (which I can still do), but I never got to the point where I was thumbing through novels with ease. But I remember really starting to love reading once I mastered English.
I was lucky enough to attend schools where reading was not only actively encouraged, but a crucial part of every subject. It makes sense, after all, because you can’t really expect to do well in most other subjects without a firm grasp on reading comprehension. Except maybe math, but even then, word problems could get quite particular. But my favourite memory of being encouraged to read is from when I was in eighth grade.
For eighth grade English class, I remember we focused a lot on grammar. We analyzed sentence structure, and learned to label words in a sentence with their parts of speech. For novel study, we read two books: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Elie Wiesel’s Night. We were given time to do silent reading for a few minutes sometimes. But other than that, I remember my teacher, Mrs. G.
I didn’t have too many significant encounters with Mrs. G that I remember. I didn’t stay after school to get extra help, and I don’t think she picked favorites. But I remember Mrs. G kept a pile of her own books, from her personal library, on her desk. We had a small shelf of books in the classroom, where you could pick books from, if you hadn’t brought your own silent reading book.
But the pile of books on Mrs. G’s desk was special, and what made me feel most special was that Mrs. G allowed me to borrow her own books. The only one I remember now, ten years later, is Life of Pi, which I read quickly, without really absorbing the more spiritual aspects of the story. But even now, I’m glad that Mrs. G noticed that I loved to read, and offered me books that broadened my horizons.
That being said, I don’t feel like I had to read too many canonical works for school, other than Shakespeare. I was never forced to read 1984 (which I read on my own time) or Lord of the Flies (which I didn’t). Instead, my teachers (and professors, once I transitioned to university) assigned me some books which I would still recommend, outside of an academic setting:
1. Salome, by Oscar Wilde: This is cheating a bit, since Salome is not an entire book. It’s a short play. I read Salome for a Victorian literature class, which I initially assumed would consist of Dickensian fiction, but instead ended up being about Wilde and decadence. Salome is different from what little I’ve read of Wilde’s other work, and while writing my final paper for the course, I fell in love with the language–obsessive and artificial, paired with Aubrey Beardsley’s iconic illustrations.
2. White Teeth, by Zadie Smith: There is something for everyone in White Teeth. Characters of every possible colour, appearance, personality, and motive. All told in a realistic, yet comedic, yet also tragic, voice. I read this book while staying in London for the summer, and walking through the places described in the novel just heightened my love for it.
3. Woman’s World, by Graham Rawle: Unlike the other books on this list, I didn’t do an extensive project on Woman’s World. I was assigned to read it during my second year of university, in a class on British literature. The unique way it was put together, and the interesting ideas it has on gender relations (one of my favorite topics) puts this on the list.
4. Night, by Elie Wiesel: Night is one of those books that I wish was mandatory reading in schools all around the world. Before reading Night, I was aware of the history of the Holocaust, but I wasn’t aware of the reality of it–and I will never be fully aware of it, but Night helped bring me one step closer.
5. Dawn, by Octavia Butler: I disliked this book when I first read it, but I was forced to read passages over and over again, because I had to do a presentation on it. In hindsight, this was one of the most interesting books I was assigned to read. It’s definitely strange, and more than a little disturbing, but good stories are the ones that make you question yourself and your surroundings, and this is one of them.