The Road by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2006, started my used book journey. The novel charts the journey of a father and son in a post-apocalyptic world as they try to find warmer climates to help their chances of survival. I read the hardcover in one sitting…a very visceral heart-pounding, page-turning sitting. That week, I traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, to grade AP exams. There were hundreds of English teachers there, and the discussion naturally turned to “what are you reading now?” A teacher from San Francisco described how she had patiently waited on a list for The Road at the library. Finally a copy came available, and she picked the novel up on her way home from the market. Leaning in like a conspirator, she said, “The mistake I made was opening the book before I had unloaded the groceries….things melted on the counter for hours.” I knew exactly how she felt.
Finding a book that high school students will read and enjoy is tricky. The canon offers a multitude of books that are of great quality, and many students will grudgingly admit that they thought the book was good …..after being dragged through the text. Teaching literature in high school can make one feel like a mom serving broccoli to finicky toddlers. “Read this,” I will plead, “this book is good for you!”
However, I knew The Road would be different. There was just enough suspense to keep students engaged. The plot was (deceptively) simple. The setting ominous and gloomy and not unlike their view of the future on occasion.
The problem was the cost of the text. The cheapest paperback copies I could find at the time (pre-movie release) were $11.99 each. I purchased 70 copies (a chunk of the budget at $839.30), but as enrollment fluctuates, I needed eight more copies that November. I found five copies at the Burnham library in Bridgewater that were part of the Oprah book discussion series. The librarians were clearing them off the shelves, and I purchased them for $1.00 each…a find! The last three copies I purchased through Amazon’s used book offerings.
We taught The Road in November of 2009 with amazing success. The students were paired together in teams, like the man and the boy, and completed quizzes and classwork together. The vocabulary was enriching not demanding; students actually wanted to know what the words “miasma” and “slut lamp” meant.
My fellow teacher and I were crazed in keeping track of each and every book, and at the conclusion of the unit, collected back 76 gently used copies and one water-soaked blob of text. However, the enrollment numbers for the upcoming class of juniors was larger, and I was determined to find cheap copies of this text. I began hunting The Road.
The Road trade paperback (2007) has a very distinct cover…all black with bold white letters. This design makes the novel easy to locate in a shelf or on a table filled with other texts. During the summer of 2010, I found copies of The Road at library book sales, Goodwill stores, and tag sales. I have added to the 76 copies we collected back, and the department now has a little over 100 copies of this text -which means that honors and college prep classes can be taught at the same time.
Finding The Road in the used book market also means that copies can be provided for students on IEPs who may need to highlight or write in the book. We can also provide extra copies to special education teachers and aides. They also have been engrossed in the book.
For the past two years, The Road has been an excellent addition to our 11th grade curriculum. The students read the book without complaint, and there are now enough copies that will carry us into the future. Which future I do not know…. McCarthy’s vision or another? The journey continues!