Arts and Entertainment

Memorabilia of the English Curriculum

Many Stuyvesant students may think of their nightly English reading assignments as more burdens to overcome, but Arts and Entertainment writers argue that these books have made a profound impact on our journeys throughout high school.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In a digitized world filled with endless stimuli flying left and right, we rarely find the time to sit down and read a book. That is, unless the benevolent Stuyvesant English department assigns us a text. While many canonized books might skirt our idea of a “pleasure read,” our mandatory readings have still been profoundly impactful both inside and outside the classroom.

“Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (Freshman Year)

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel “Catcher in the Rye” (1951) is a striking portrait of Holden Caulfield, a privileged teen with a bitter, disaffected worldview. He struggles to connect with others, using his sardonic apathy as a defense mechanism for his immaturity. While Holden’s role as a “misunderstood teen” has been replicated to banality, there is an exceptional accuracy to Salinger’s portrayal of teenage emotions. Holden’s flippant disregard feels genuine and defensive at just the right moments; his youthful wanderlust creeps back into the margins of his psyche just enough for the reader to feel its presence, but not so much that it loses its subtlety; his geysers of anger are undercut with a sense of sympathetic desperation and loneliness, giving him depth beyond being characterized as a “grumpy misanthropic schmuck.”

Salinger’s expert balance of character traits makes it clear that Holden is not an inspirational figure, but readers come away from “Catcher in the Rye” feeling like there is a piece of him in them. In the two years since meeting Holden Caulfield, I’ve grown and changed while keeping his plights in mind. Am I really dispassionate and callous, or am I simply projecting my insecurities? Do others “not understand me,” or am I being deliberately obtuse to feel intellectually superior? Am I making a poignant critique of a social institution, or am I having a temper tantrum? All of these questions have shaped the way I’ve matured from my freshman self by allowing me to maintain my critical eye and skeptical attitude, but at the same time, shave away the insufferable byproducts that cohabit them.

“The Joy Luck Club” (1989) by Amy Tan (Freshman Year)

Tan’s novel opens with four Chinese immigrant mothers meeting for their regularly scheduled game of mah-jong, as per the Joy Luck tradition. Through a series of 16 short stories that span decades, the novel centers around four mother-daughter relationships, revealing parallels between families and generations. Just as the scope of the word “Joy Luck” cannot be completely captured in English, the book is only a fragment of the female Chinese-American experience. Through vivid memories set from China to San Francisco, traditional legends, and recurring motifs, the reader starts to understand the universal bond that ties the mother-daughter pairs together. As the older generation faces and resolves deep-rooted trauma, the Joy Luck daughters gradually find value in their heritage, leading to both inner conflicts with their identities as well as the eventual synonymity with their backgrounds. “The Joy Luck Club” was an impactful and memorable read because the idea of trans-generational tradition and pride is an idea that many Stuyvesant students, regardless of background, can relate to.

“Atonement” by Ian McEwan (Sophomore Year)

Set in 20th century England, “Atonement” (2001) by Ian McEwan explores the consequences of a fateful lie intertwined with a story of love and war. 13-year-old Briony Tallis and her misconceptions of the adult world ultimately jeopardize her older sister Cecilia’s relationship with childhood sweetheart, Robbie, for which she spends the latter portion of the story trying to atone. Told from three points of view, the novel dives into the paradox of fiction, challenging the reader to reconsider each character’s account, with a shocking twist at the end to put the entire story into perspective. McEwan’s sweeping imagery, poetic phrases, and lively characters add texture to a carefully mapped plot design that gives the reader a magical experience inside a world that blurs time. The book does more than investigate the burden of Briony’s guilt and the danger of misinterpretation. It is a psychological analysis of humanity hidden in flowery language and a panorama questioning the significance of reality. One of McEwan’s most celebrated works and a staple of 21st century literature, “Atonement” successfully combines all of the intoxicating elements of a page-turning story with philosophical insights and majestic prose.

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse, Sophomore Year

Originally written in German, Hemann Hesse’s “Siddhartha” (1922) follows the eponymous Siddhartha’s journey to enlightenment. The book describes the titular character’s discovery of life, friendship, love, work, and fatherhood. Hesse’s tone is slow and methodical, highlighting Siddartha’s childlike wonder and curiosity, but also emphasizing the inevitable unhappiness caused by material desires.

The novel surprises its readers with the extent of Siddhartha’s worldly knowledge, which is far beyond his years. Rather than listen to the famous Buddha’s lectures on finding Nirvana, Siddhartha leaves his friends and familiarity to travel and experience life himself. Knowledge cannot be learned entirely from a classroom, but instead must be sought through real-life experiences. However, Nirvana, or true inner-peace, cannot be found through a one-size-fits-all process. In a highly competitive and fast-paced environment like Stuyvesant, Hesse’s themes ring true. Stuyvesant prioritizes academic excellence as well as finding your one true passion in time for college. Though the truth remains that we won’t be able to find Nirvana by our 18th birthday, at least we can experience our youthful teenage years to the fullest.