Lord of the Flies (Penguin Great Books of the 20th Century)

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The Teenage Years are More Dystopian Than Ever

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Led by Millions Top Tenner The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, dystopia is unseating vampires as the dominant theme in teen fiction, according to The Independent. The paper lists several other examples of the hot new trend, including Plague by Michael Grant and Matched by Ally Condie. (We’d argue that with dystopian classics like 1984 and Lord of the Flies on teen reading lists for decades, this is an old trend that’s new again.)

A Year in Reading: Meghan O’Rourke

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Meghan O’Rourke is literary editor of Slate and author of Halflife, a book of poems.The most extraordinary book I read this year is Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, originally published in 1929. A peculiar fantasia on the nearly impenetrable and certainly alien world of childhood, the novel is at once highly lyrical and poetic fable and an implicit critique of pat moral systems and the blindnesses of colonialism. It functions almost as a trompe l’oeil, inviting you to see the landscape around you one way, then another. In his excavations of the subterranean shifts in perspective that are so much of anyone’s childhood, Hughes also reminds us of the virtues of whimsy: One of the best passages consists of the author’s attempt to differentiate the inner life of a baby from the inner life of a child – and involves a fabulous encounter with an octopus. What isn’t here is the explanatory language of psychology; what is here is an eccentric vision of humanity so particularized as to be really convincing – almost a Lord of the Flies for grown-ups who didn’t like the original all that much.More from A Year in Reading 2007

Summer Reading

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I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.

Living in the Shadows: A Review of Jose Saramago’s Blindness

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Seeing is believing. And if you don’t see the shit you wallow in, maybe you won’t mind it as much. Or at least that is one of the tangential points in Jose Saramago’s Blindness, a powerful journey into darkness that sheds a light on humankind in a moment of weakness.With a simple narrative and unusual style, Saramago – the 1998 Nobel Laureate for Literature – constantly forces his reader to deliberate a situation that, in the course of the novel, becomes too real to bear in one’s mind: all of a sudden and for some unknown reason everyone goes blind one after the other. What happens next?It is a tough question. I am not sure Saramago is trying to provide an answer. Surely not in the predictable plot, which is akin to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: First there is calm, surely the situation can be contained and all will be saved, everyone acts rationally; next there are disputes, power struggles, dehumanizing situations; then there is chaos, expect the worst; finally, there is a resolution.But the plot’s predictability does not detract from the quality of the novel by any means. On the contrary, as events unfold as a reader might expect them to, one begins to wonder if mankind’s reactions are routinely banal, i.e., consistent over time. Violence and occasional heroics follow each other and rise in magnitude over time; dependence emerges naturally; the impulse to quell chaos dies when individuals seek to satisfy personal needs.Saramago’s economic use of words accentuates the grim conditions of a blind country, the helpless life plagued citizens are forced to lead and the speed with which life can turn from normal to a wild unknown. Suddenly, “I’m blind,” communicates more what than the two words ordinarily connote.The author’s succinct style is remarkable for its clarity. Conversations are embedded in the narrative and commas are their only indicators – yet somehow the lack of quotation marks does not confuse the reader. Blindness flows seamlessly from beginning to end, horrifying the reader with candid observations of humankind and plunging one into deep thought – and depression.Despite his usual hostility to religion, Saramago treads traditional symbols into his novel, and in the process creates a prophet – but one who breaks with the expected and, accepting the situation, sticks to a small group of followers.Blindness is a moving expose on what men will do to each other when backed into a corner. And blindly punching away is just the beginning.

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