Considering every book that you have read in your life, which work inspired your most visceral reaction? Was it a cult classic whose critical acclaim you vehemently protest, or the hidden gem you believe everyone would be better for reading? Marblehead High School English teacher Neil Moloney recently posed this question to 24 seniors in his AP Literature and Composition class, asking them to write an annotated bibliography detailing every work of literary merit they have read in high school.
“Mr. Ryan used to do this project with seniors, and the goal initially was for students to list and annotate every book they’ve ever read,” says Mr. Moloney. “Children’s books, board books, all the way up to young adult books, into their middle school and high school careers.” This year, Mr. Moloney adapted the project for the AP class specifically so that students could “focus on works that could be used for the AP exam.”
The annotated bibliography is not only a study guide, says Mr. Moloney. This assignment allows “students to review works they could write about on the exam but also to think through the effects books have had on them.” Mr. Moloney admits that this effect is often surprising, especially compared to students’ methodical answers during class discussion. “I always enjoy getting these visceral, ‘This is how I feel about the book!’ [annotations],” he says.
Lane Davis organized her annotated bibliography based on how desperately she wants to punch each book’s protagonist. At the bottom of the list, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye:
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Little, Brown and Co, 1951.
“One of the most iconic high school classics, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye tells the story of Holden Caulfield again and again. Telling from a mental institution, adolescent Holden tells of his dropping out of Pencey boarding school and consequential reprimand from his condescending and annoying teacher Mr. Spencer. After a fight with his roommate Stradlater, he ventures to New York and annoyingly asks a cab driver about ducks. Checking into the hotel and seeing a couple across the hall, he calls a past stripper Faith Cavendish to meet up and hopefully have sex. He went to the Lavender room and danced and later thought of his ex, Jane Gallagher and their near romance. He has an embarrassing encounter with the stripper Sunny, insults another ex, and Carl Luce, too. He dreams of being the “catcher in the rye.” He tells his sister Phoebe of his troubles and plans to flee and she begs to come too. Instead, he leads her to a carousel and watches her happily.
Although Holden is one of my least favorite characters of all time, there’s no denying that Salinger’s characterization was well developed considering that I developed such a strong opinion about its characters. His social interactions are very uncomfortable to read and Holden’s narration is overflowing with complaints or speculations on others’ phoniness. Holden encapsulates a moody teenage boy well.
Punchability: 100%; Holden needs to be humbled. He endlessly complains about people’s lies, fakeness and consequential “phoniness” while he lies to his parents, teachers and even strangers about his own identity. Very hypocritical and proud, Holden could use a good wake up call.”
“I was fired up about Fahrenheit 451 because it is mediocre and self-satisfied,” says Kate Gardner, referencing her most spirited annotation. “I liked this project because during high school, I’ve made a significant effort to become well-read but never had an outside opportunity to reflect on that work.”
Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451. Simon and Schuster, 1967.
“Who let this one be a classic? It doesn’t hold a candle to greats of the genre like Brave New World or 1984. Fahrenheit 451 takes place in an idiocracy, where mass media numbs the populace and books are burned. Guy Montag, a fireman, does not put out fires but rather starts them, in piles of books, because TV is bad? The core ideas of the novel ring frightfully true in today’s mass media era, particularly the bombardments of advertisement in the novel’s background. However, every inexplicable creative decision breeds another, such as how Bradbury explains that houses are coated in plastic to prevent fires, which is why the fireman can burn books. But for a society as unproductive as Montag’s, doesn’t that seem like a massive waste of resources? Why go that far for a pun? Furthermore, the fact that there yet exists a book burning brigade undermines Bradbury’s claim that books don’t matter because people stopped reading them. How much more effective would his thesis be if his novel followed a scholar trying to convince people to learn and failing due to lack of interest? Finally, this novel is so misogynistic that it loses credibility. I can believe in a character that loves TV more than people. I cannot believe in a character that’s so dissociated from reality she speaks to a television family as though they are her own family. Also, Guy Montag just sucks as a husband. After his wife attempts suicide, he elects to ignore her to creepily follow this SEVENTEEN YEAR OLD manic pixie dream girl who later dies because women are other souless vapid temptresses of sex, or virginal ideals that must die to preserve their purity. Also, old men who memorized the Bible are apparently the future of learning. Go to hell, Ray Bradbury!”
Although The Great Gatsby was the only novel in Will Shull’s junior year AP Language and Composition curriculum, he insists that the book stands out among all his years of high school reading.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1925.
“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is narrated by a young man from Minnesota, Nick Carraway, who has just moved to West Egg, Long Island. The story, however, follows Nick’s mysterious neighbor, Jay Gatsby, who throws lavish parties at his extravagant mansion next door. After encountering Gatsby at one of his luxurious gatherings, Nick learns that Gatsby is in love with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan. Daisy, however, is married to Tom Buchanan, so Nick arranges an affair between the two long-lost lovers. As the story continues, tensions rise, and Daisy accidentally kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, in a hit-and-run car crash. As life around Gatsby crumbles, Nick is stuck watching tragedy unfold and death enclose on those involved.
The Great Gatsby is not Fitzgerald’s most renowned book for any random reason. The pacing is quick, the imagery is beautifully colorful, and the characters are all addictive. The mysterious air that Jay Gatsby emits captured my attention immediately, and from then on, I was along for the ride, turning each page faster than the previous. Between the decadent parties and affairs, it never let me rest. Fitzgerald’s brilliant character development and plot help illuminate the deeper messages present about American life during the roaring 20s. All-in-all, I had The Great Gatsby read in under three days, a record for a reader such as myself. Though this was a school-issued reading, it never conformed to the depressing and boring school-book curriculum. It left me satisfied and wanting more. I am not one to recommend novels, nor one to read them for fun, but this was and certainly will continue to be an exception.”
“Sometimes books are read for hundreds of years, but when we read it today, we see that maybe this isn’t what we thought it was,” says Mr. Moloney. “I really want students to become a part of this conversation and say, ‘Well does this book have something to give to us, to society?’” When he continues this project next year, Mr. Moloney says that he’ll ask students to annotate each book from the AP Lit curriculum as soon as they finish reading in order to “make [this essential question] a more ingrained part of the curriculum.”
Students who completed the project agree that this method would be effective. “I think the problem was the books we had to annotate; I had no problem annotating the books from senior year because they were fresh in my memory, but the sophomore year books were just so jumbled together that I felt no vivid or clear feelings,” one AP Lit student acknowledged. “I think if the English department was in sync and knew that we would have to write a giant bibliography, making us do an annotation after we finished each book would be great.”
Seniors who piloted this project revealed guidelines that are in need of improvement, but by candidly annotating their lives’ libraries, they also revealed the need for this project to continue. “One of the bigger goals for AP Lit is to have students develop a love for literature,” reminds Mr. Moloney. With an assignment that challenges student to reflect on every book they’ve read at MHS, the Marblehead English curriculum returns to the heart of this mission.