Year 12 English Literature books

Prompted by a Facebook status by the wonderful writer Cassandra Golds (who also does a mean line in reposting my favourite 70s songs), I found that I was able to instantly recall my year 12 Lit reading list (not sure what the equivalent of Lit is in other states):

A Burnt-Out Case, Graham Greene
Wuthering Heights, Emile Bronte
John Donne
e e cummings
Antony and Cleopatra
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Ray Lawler

Because I was two years older than my contemporaries, by the time I got to year 12 I had done a lot of reading, but Literature taught me the rudiments of analysis and gave me a taste of what deep and studious reading of a text could reveal.  I loved e e cummings’ layered criticisms of The World and the joyousness of his word-plays; I loathed Summer of the Seventeeth Doll because I couldn’t relate to its middle-aged disillusionment and I found the obviousness of the language – after cummings and Shakespeare – tedious.  A shame, given it was the only Australian title on the list (and I had no problem with the disillusionment in A Burnt-Out Case).  Donne’s witty conceits amused me; the excessive, Gothic passions of Bronte were both thrilling and alien (though I was glad to finally understand what Kate Bush was singing about!)

The things I remember most from year 12 Literature were the conversations we had in class: I had never before experienced the pleasure of communal reading and discussion (I did year 11 by correspondence), and I loved the way the interrogation of characters, themes, story, and language let us all examine, dismantle and reassemble our assumptions, beliefs and reactions.  It was a taste of what was to come at university, and I was hooked.   

It was also the first time that I tackled Shakespeare – in my early teens I was addicted to the Sonnets, but studying Antony and Cleopatra made me realise that Shakespeare repaid close attention: even if I didn’t understand every word, I could hear the music and get the gist.  (I mention this because there was some comment about the value of kids doing ‘difficult’ texts).

Incidentally, I read a lot from what was then on the year 11 and 12 course lists before I was in year 11 and 12, probably because they were the novels in second-hand shops: The Bell Jar, Brave New World, The Collector.  But I also developed aversions that kept me from some great work until much later: The Great Gatsby (I didn’t like the title), anything by Ernest Hemingway (overexposure), Jane Austen (I didn’t learn to love her until my 30s), Steinbeck (apart from Mice and Men), Gwen Harwood (because her name was Gwen).

What did you have to read at school – did it set off any lifelong passions (or aversions?)

Should we give kids the hard stuff, or should they be left to discover it on their own?

5 thoughts on “Year 12 English Literature books

  1. Megan Burke

    i had a lot of shakespeare, whom i hate!

    i didn't take lit because i didn't want to do austin – who i also don't like – but i did regular english.

    other titles included 'the wife of martin guerre' (which was stupid and boring however slightly bareable as the entire book was approx the width of two two dollar coins put together!).

    we also did a war book whose title escapes me, but it wasn't 'i'm not scared' i remember that!

    in year 11, we had one term of being able to pick our own book.

    they gave us a pre-approved list and set us loose in the library, the theory being that it was first in best dressed as to who grabbed what book.

    i, being a complete loser, went straight up to the teacher and requested a different book. although it had been made into a movie – a big no-no for obvious reasons – because i was a straight-A student (*cough nerd cough*) they trusted that I wasn't about to watch the movie and skimp on the assignments.

    i did THE HOURS by michael cunningham, one of my favourite books, and the four assignments made me appreicate it even more. I got A+ on all of them 😀

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  2. Penni

    I did Lit in year 11. Tassie was different then, you did your HSC over two years.
    King Lear by Shakin' Bill
    Amadeus by Peter Scheaffer
    Robert Frost
    An Item From the Late News by Thea Astley
    A Tale of Two Cities by Mr Dickens
    I loved King Lear. I was ambivalent about Frost (would have LOVED to do e.e. cummings as I read him a lot then) but can still quote some of his poetry – I think I was rather derisive of his rhymes but enchanted by his melancholy. I enjoyed Amadeus. I was puzzled by Thea Astley. I was BORED by Dickens, but read enough to do well (actually I got the second highest mark in the state in my year – it might have been the highest if we'd done e.e. cummings!)

    I did Euro Lit in Year Twelve and that was a huge reading list. I remember:
    The Death of Ivan Illych
    Germinal
    The Leopard
    No Exit
    Six Characters in Search of an Author
    Mother Courage and her Children

    But I think there may have been more novels.

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  3. Penni

    Oh and to answer your other questions:
    YES to hard stuff, especially Shakespeare who is very hard to read at first unless you are pushed to stretch your mind and go beyond the surface of the text.

    Thea Astley didn't (fortunately) turn me off reading Contemporary Australian Women Writers I went through a huge phase of Beverley Farmer, Marion Halligan, Helen Garner as a teen/twenty something…but as a teenager I was baffled by Astley and I remember all of us complaining about the novel. Still, on some level I also enjoyed nutting it out and lingering on themes and images – again, studying it enriched it for me.

    Am still off Dickens though.

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  4. Cassandra

    What I read for 3-unit English in Year 12 for the NSW HSC in 1980 had such a profound effect on me that I've spent the rest of my life thinking about it. We did Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Pride and Prejudice, Brave New World, Henry IV Part 1, The Crucible, The Wife of Bath from The Canterbury Tales, John Donne, Coleridge and T.S. Eliot. A grab bag of my most frequent memories:
    – the sentence in the introduction to our edition of Tess of the D'Urbervilles where the critic remarked that Hardy had a life-long conviction that there was “SOMETHING FUNDAMENTALLY AWRY IN THE SCHEME OF THINGS” (one of the most memorable and expressive phrases I have ever read)
    – my friend Nerida adopting a sentence out of context from Tess as a catch phrase when leaving a gathering (namely, '”I'm off,” said Alec D'Urberville.'”)
    – the overwhelming, ethereal tenderness of Frost at Midnight, in which Coleridge addresses his sleeping infant child, and the line from the Eolian Harp, “what exquisite scents snatched from yon beanfield”, because it's both beautiful and batty
    – the absolute revelation that was T.S. Eliot, with his “infinitely gentle, infinitely suffering thing” and his “smells of steaks in passageways” and skies that were like “a patient etherised on a table” and his syncretism (that came in VERY handy) and his mysticism in the midst of profound alienation
    – SHAKESPEARE! *swoon* ENUFF SAID. But particularly Prince Hal's speech, “Yet herein will I imitate the sun”
    – Having to translate a passage in class out loud and unprepared from Chaucer that had a racy bit in it and being praised by the teacher for the lady-like delicacy of my translation
    – Generally, an incredible sense of the sheer wealth of English literature, of these riches that came free to anyone who wanted them, of how you could dive in and dwell in it like this vast intellectual and aesthetic and spiritual ocean, and that this was the beginning…
    It was the happiest year of my life. I did four years of English Literature at Sydney University and studied all of the above in greater depth — and I feel a tremendous debt of gratitude to those courses and those lecturers and I don't go a day without drawing on them. But the elation of that first year of university-style study was like falling in love.

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  5. meredith

    For English Lit in Year 12 we did:
    Antony and Cleopatra – which I LOVED and quoted endlessly (In my salad days … etc) Such magnificent language and yes, beautiful and rich rhythms
    Great Expectations – which we were advised to read straight through once as though it was (were?) a detective novel, then more slowly and analytically the second time. I'd already read it when I was 11 so I skipped the first reading, but was amazed to find out so much more about the book through analysis (who would have thought a character's name (in this case Estella) could have so much bearing on her personality?) I began to realise that authors wrote things in certain ways for a REASON
    .
    T S Eliot and Wilfred Owen. Strange bedfellows. I totally fell for old T S and wrote lots of crappy poetry based on his style. Didn't mind old Wilfred either.
    'I have measured out my life in coffee spoons …'

    Sons and Lovers. At 16, I fell for the romanticism and lushness of D H Lawrence. This was beaten out of me the next year at Melbourne Uni (where the entire English dept of that 'Leavisite' era pooped on Lawrence – Jane Austen was the 'darling' of the faculty). Mind you, when I reread Lawrence a few years later I thought his books were terribly overwritten and cloying, so there you go.

    There must have been others but I can only remember some of the books we did that year for 'straight' English:
    The Leopard
    The Australian Ugliness – Robin Boyd – which I found really interesting (apparently it's still a huge best-seller)
    and the standout as far as I was concerned:
    Talking to a Stranger: John Hopkins – which was four separate plays telling the story of one weekend's events from the viewpoints of four different family members. Riveting, acerbic stuff. My favourite was 'Anytime you're ready I'll sparkle' – a phrase which I'm ashamed to admit I'd throw into conversations
    when trying to sound witty and worldly after I'd left school (and usually after I'd had just slightly too much to drink). I've recently written a series of books that look at the events of a school year from the viewpoints of four different characters – I hadn't thought of it till now but maybe this book had more of an effect on me than I'd realised 🙂

    Oh yes, and Voss! How could I forget Voss. The opening paragraph contained a sentence that wasn't actually a sentence. 'And stood there, breathing.' I didn't know you were allowed to do that! My English teachers had been crossing out my (experimental) incomplete sentences for years. It really excited me to think that this kind of writing was actually legitimate – there it was in front of me, in a published book.

    Anyway, close reading and discussion and analysis of a text is a very different fish than simply 'reading' and I'm glad I went through the process, even though it probably seemed like hard work at the time.

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