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Bookshelf

Ideas about what constitutes good reading for high-school students vary wildly. Some educators and publishers clearly believe that simple words in simple order are the right diet for growing minds. Others, fearful that they won't be able to hold the attention of kids raised on TV, movies, and video games, create books that mimic the attention-grabbing stunts of the flashier media. And some produce books that teenagers and adults can read with equal profit. There are ideological divisions, too. You don't have to be Jesse Helms to see the biases in many high school courses.

Here are two books that are unlikely to appear on Official Reading Lists but are very much worth the effort. The first is Liberian Dreams: Back-to-Africa Narratives from the 1850s, edited by Wilson Jeremiah Moses (Penn State, 234 pp.; $16.95, paper). This volume collects narratives by four African American men who went to the newly created Republic of Liberia in 1853. They represent sharply divergent viewpoints on Liberia and the "back-to-Africa" project it represented. Indeed, one great strength of the book is its expression of the complex range of views within the nineteenth-century African American community. This would make an excellent follow-up to the film Amistad.

The second is The Book Of Margery Kempe, translated from the Middle English and with an introduction by John Skinner (Doubleday/Image, 343 pp.; $12, paper). Kemp (c. 1373 - c. 1440) was born to a prosperous merchant family and married young. Her life was turned upside down in her early twenties when, after a long period of spiritual turmoil, she experienced a vision of Jesus. She was a contentious woman, as her own account reveals, and her restless pilgrimage led her down some strange byways, but there is a freshness to her autobiography that will grip the willing reader.

Resist dumbing down! There are many books like these.

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