A Good Foundation for High School English

Today I was reading an article on Lifehacker listing books that should be dropped from reading lists for high schoolers and some that should take their place. I definitely disagree about Dante’s Divine Comedy being dropped—I first read it when I was in junior high, myself. At the same time, I was surprised to see Foundation on the list (or at least the first two sections).

After I finished jumping up and down, I stopped to think. That’s really a rather odd choice. It’s not the best of the original Foundation  “novels,” although it makes sense not to read the other two until you’ve read it. (Personally, I read Foundation and Empire first and am none the worse for the experience.) Still, not my first choice.

When I was in high school, one of my English teachers decided to have a student-taught module on science fiction. I was among the students who got to run the show. We had a reading list, and the one Asimov piece we put on it was “Reason.” On the whole, I still think it’s a reasonable choice, although now I’d more likely be lazy and put “The Last Question” in its place.

What would my choice be for a book by Asimov to put on a reading list for modern high schoolers? One of the chief things to keep in mind is that you need something that a modern high schooler could reasonably get a copy of, which leaves out Nine Tomorrows or Chemistry and Human Health.

On the whole, I’d have to go with one of three: I, Robot, The Caves of Steel, or The End of Eternity. All three are still in print. I, Robot is probably the most influential of the three and is probably the best choice to pique a high schooler’s interest. The other two, on the other hand, are (I believe) Asimov’s best novels.

Any other suggestions?

One Year to Go…

Happy birthday, Dr. A.!

I have traditionally written an entry to celebrate Asimov’s putative birthday—putative, because his actual birthday was unknown. For one thing, Asimov was Jewish and not ethnic Russian. For another, Russia had only recently switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian. Finally, record keeping in early communist Russia was not exactly at its highest pitch. The actual date was probably somewhere between early October 1919 and early January 2010; January 2 was always the day he celebrated. 

To get back to the point—I have traditionally celebrated Asimov’s birthday by writing a blog entry suggesting reading for the day. I missed last year accidentally. I actually had an entry ready but forgot to post it. I’m making doubly sure not to miss this year.

There are really two ways (say I) to celebrate Asimov’s 99th birthday. The first is to pick a book whose official book number is a multiple of 99. The other, which is new to this year, would be to read a book whose last two digits in the official list are “99.”

With the first technique, we have:

This is a hard choice. On the one hand, if you have access to the Story-a-Month™ Calendar—and gaLAXy but you’re a lucky dog, you—the sheer rarity makes it attractive.

Life and Time is an F&SF essay collection. They’re always easy reads and among his very best non-fiction.

Still, I’d have to go with the Guide to the Bible. Asimov was a secular Jew and atheist/agnostic, and by no means a Biblical scholar; but the Guide to the Bible is still top-notch and an excellent introduction to the historical background first century Christianity. For a general audience interested in the New Testament, it’s top-notch. 

(I will profess to being prejudiced here. Not only is it the only book on this list from my own “golden age,” but I’m going to be teaching an adult Sunday School class on the New Testament this year. It will be handy.)

As for the second algorithm:

This is another hard choice. I love #199 dearly, but it’s forty years out-of-date, and considering how much we’ve learned about the outer solar system since it was published, it’s badly out-of-date. How Did We Find Out About Computers? is part of the “How Did We Find Out” series, which are all excellent but for children. 

The real problem here is Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories 25. Again, it’s excellent. For the purposes of reading top-notch science fiction from the period between 1939 through 1963 the series is unmatched. This is the very last in the series, too, which gives it a melancholy air. In the end, because Asimov’s involvement in the editorial process was minimal, and because none of his own fiction appears therein, I’d have to recommend giving it a pass. 

Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, Volume Two it is, then. My own paperback copy is in bad shape, since I tripped and fell while walking home from the bookstore after buying it. (A neighbor’s dog seems to have decided that I was spending too much time walking upright.) 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a nice mug of hot chocolate, curl up in my favorite comfy chair, and get to reading.