Why are novels taught?

I’ve been exploring this idea lately. I love teaching novels. I love watching students discover clever plotting, characterization, or simply grow so interested in a tale that they cannot put the book down. On the other hand, I grow tired of students who simply refuse to turn the pages or hurry to read the end and try to ruin it for everyone else. A new personal low for me this year was a student who admitted that he enjoyed the story, but he didn’t want to read it. I was at a loss.

I am in the process of choosing new novels for next year. As I talk with other teachers, the question continues to arise for me: Why should I choose one novel over another?

Several answers come up:

  1. Because I like the novel. In general, I feel that I have to like the book in order to want to teach it. This can cause problems because my likes and dislikes will not be the same as other teachers or students. Just because I like it, are others supposed to?
  2. Because it is challenging. Not every challenging book is a joy to read. Several “literary classics” bore me to tears and I can’t imagine subjecting a student to reading them. But should we pick really easy books to read? It seems to be a consensus that there needs to be some challenge to the reading, either in vocabulary, or metaphorical comparisons, dialect, etc…
  3. Because it’s always been taught. There must be something good about it since it’s always being taught, right? Or is it possible to make something seem important over years? It’s a significant question.
  4. Because it is a culturally significant novel. Many novels are imitated, alluded to, used as punchlines to jokes, etc… If students are to better understand our culture, shouldn’t they be exposed to these novels? For example,I recently directed a murder mystery spoof that referenced at least a dozen different books like  And Then There Were None and Rebecca as well as detective characters from a handful of mystery novels.  Those who had read them got the jokes when they watched the play.  The other students were clueless.
  5. Because it’s in the curriculum.  That should never be your ultimate reason.

In the end, though, I’m wondering if anyone can shed some light on this question.  Personal reasons, thoughts, ideas, anything that can help.

I am the language lover and these are my thoughts.



  1. renaissanceguy said,

    March 26, 2008 at 5:27 am

    Choose a novel that you love and that says something meaningful. Do try to tailor it to the needs and wants of the students. That’s what I do, and it works very well. I am able to pour myself into the teaching of it and to get across well to the students. I am usually able to spread the enthusiasm (or at least entertain them with my bewildering excitement for a book).

    One thing I do when choosing classroom novels is alternate a “boy” book with a “girl” book. It makes things go much more smoothly, especially if you study the boy book first.

    Rationales for teaching novels:

    1. We see ourselves in one or more of the characters, which helps us learn more about ourselves.
    2. We see the human condition, which helps us to be more compassionate and concerned with others.
    3. We are transported to other times and places in a more direct way than through a dry history book.
    4. We confront ideas that we have never thought of before and that we might not agree with, which forces us to clarify our own views.
    5. We encounter ideas that we have thought of, which makes us go, “So somebody else out there thinks as I do. I’m not alone.”
    6. We gain a framework for viewing the world around us–through the characters, symbols, and metaphors in the novel.
    7. We observe good and bad examples of human thought and behavior, which can prompt us to reform our own thoughts and behaviors.
    8. We find emotional release–catharsis–as we put ourselves into the story.
    9. We observe skilled writing firsthand, which can help us to express ourselves better in writing.
    10. We form a bond with other people who have read the book.

  2. March 29, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    Good thoughts, RG. I think I’ll keep your list handy as I discuss this idea with my peers. One issue that I’ve encountered is that my department chair feels that a book taught in an advanced class must be challenging. By that, I mean it must have dialect, vocabulary, or sentence structure that the student must work at, at least somewhat, to read. I’m not fully behind that idea. I thought we could try to focus on some more genre specific novels, but each of those were found “too easy”. So, in the end, we went with more traditional classics like Brave New World and Frankenstein. More contemporary novels were discarded because they would be outdated as contemporary within a few years. We are going to try to put together a contemporary unit, though, that students will choose books from the library to read.

    I’m rambling. In short, thanks for the insight.

  3. Jay Burns said,

    April 9, 2008 at 11:35 pm

    What a great list Rguy. I love to read. I tend to gobble up material which challenges me or interests me. However, I’ve never enjoyed required reading. I would have taken any number of beatings rather than force myself to scan the pages of Great Expectations. Good luck choosing great works and don’t fret about those students who don’t yet find pleasure in reading. It may have been the rebellious spirit in me, but I didn’t really begin to enjoy reading until I was doing for my own pleasure. That being said the teachers who had the greatest influence on me were those who forced me to read.

  4. adsoofmelk said,

    April 12, 2008 at 4:01 am

    I would also add, “Choose a novel which unlocks other ideas present in the culture.” Hey, we all know that some works of literature really pay off in what I guess you could call their allusion value. Oedipus is one such work; Hamlet is another: both of them are alluded to again and again, so knowledge of them increases one’s “cultural literacy” incredibly. I would also pick works that, for whatever reason, speak to the students’ condition.

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