When my high school English teacher (shout out to Mr. Ted Eriksen) passed out copies of Lord of the Flies he told us it was “Probably the most carefully constructed novel in the English language.” That being a bold intellectual statement and me and my classmates being smart ass teenagers, we immediately and mockingly started referring to the book in that manner or by the initials TMCCNITEL. Yes, we thought that was pretty funny.
Of course, we had to eat a little crow when it became obvious Mr. Eriksen was dead serious and dead right. Mind you, the structure wasn’t the first thing I noticed. The story was the first thing I noticed. It’s a great story that looks like a Robinson Crusoe adventure at first blush. The tone indicates rather quickly that it’s not going to be that. Something is weird about these kids and this island but we’re not sure what. If you haven’t read it, shame on you, but if you want the same feel and tone it’s very close to the first five or six episodes of Lost. In fact I doubt Lost could have been written without Lord of the Flies. But I digress.
The reason this book is on my literacy list is because of those two things in harmony: a really great story told in a carefully constructed manner. The book is tailor made to be taught. An English teacher’s wet dream of symbols: the conch shell, Piggy’s spectacles, the signal fire, the Beast, the titular Lord of the Flies. The characters fit into allegorical roles that make the book easy to classify as allegory. But it’s told so damn well that it doesn’t have any of the heavy handedness of allegory. It was the first book that I wasn’t assigned but taught. There were real discussions between Mr. Eriksen and us smart ass kids. For me this leap was when we were discussing Roger (that little shit) throwing rocks at the littleuns but not quite hitting them. It’s not the most intense scene in the book by a long shot but it’s when I was invested in learning a book, even anxious to learn it. And of course it deftly foreshadows what Roger will eventually do to Piggy.
This wasn’t the overwrought obviousness of The Scarlet Letter (sorry Mrs. Leavens but that book has all the subtlety of a wrecking ball in mid swing). We’re not told that Simon is an intuitive and spiritual boy, it comes out in the story and it happens in a natural and compelling way. The book draws you in with a slow build, maintaining the simple adventure of a desert island while constantly cranking up the creepy descent into savagery. The power of primal tribalism gets so strong that the boys’ fate feels inescapable. That gripping story and masterful structure make it perfect for the classroom but it’s just as good for a less formal setting like my quick and dirty top five here. If you can read this and not want to talk about it then I guess there truly is no hope for you to develop a love of books. But I don’t think that will happen.