Was it worth it? That book bored the hell out of me in high school.
That’s a totally legit question. Having now made good on a 19-year-old reading assignment, it once again has me revisiting something that I have often considered whenever I read classic that was assigned to me as a teenager, because Gatsby wasn’t the only one I skipped out on: Anna Karenina, Black Boy, Huck Finn, David Copperfield, etc. I’m sure there are more that escape me. It’s been a while. But this leads me to my question:
Why do schools insist on having kids read classic books?
Now, before my literate friends spew their beverage on their computer screens, I want to say that this is not a commentary on the quality of these books; it’s more a statement around the content and context of these books. And ultimately, it’s a statement on why I’m glad to see the lists of books teenagers are assigned these days to be diversified and modernized.
So here’s my main beef: these classics of literature were not written for children or teenagers (and let’s be clear: teenagers are still children). I was assigned Anna Karenina by Tolstoy as part of my summer reading list going into 9th grade for my Honor’s English class. I read about a third of it and then ditched it. Terrible book. Boring. Characters to whom I could not relate at all. Was absolutely unmoved by the book. Now here’s the thing: Tolstoy is considered to be an excellent author. The book regularly shows up on “Great Novel” lists. They regularly make it into a movie. My wife decided to read the copy I’ve been hauling around since high school and she loved the book. So why didn’t I like it?
Because I was 15, and it’s not appropriate for children.
Illicit? No. Too many big words? I dunno, maybe, but likely no. More likely, it has to do with the fact that a Russian novel about class warfare and doomed affairs occurring in the context of failed marriages didn't resonate much to a 15 year old boy who had never yet been on a date. You know what DID appeal to me at age 15?
Likewise for the play The Glass Menagerie. I HATED it when I read it. [SPOILER] Why would someone just up and leave their family in a lurch? That seemed a horrible thing for an adult to do. Well, as an adult that has been through a hell of a lot of difficult issues around family and marriage, the idea of someone ditching it all and leaving, well, I get it now. Still not the right choice, but I get how someone could consider that an option.
I did NOT get that when I was 16 years old. But that’s because Tennessee Williams didn’t write for teenagers.
Anyway, I’m not trying to dumb down school curriculums, not at all. I’m wanting them to be engaging for young minds in a way 18th-century novels might not be. What I’m saying is this: why do we require children to read works of literature that are written above their level of understanding? Complex emotional and moral dilemmas within the context of an adult world will largely fail to interest a kid. People read books because they like the characters, people to whom they can relate, or for whom they can at least imagine themselves liking. There’s a reason teenagers relate to Katniss in the Hunger Games and not Anna Karenina.
This is why I am very happy to see the genre of teen lit / young adult novels becoming such a prominent part of current literary landscape and making inroads into school curriculums. Just like in all writing, some stuff is better than others, but there’s some definitely good stuff out there. Back in 2006 I worked at a library and made it a point to try to read up on young adult/ teen lit novels and there were some very good books in the mix (read Devil On My Heels by Joyce McDonald). Now, does Hunger Games stand up against The Great Gatsby in terms of literary importance? No, and that’s not what I’m saying. I think the point of getting kids to read in school is to make them readers. A kid that likes to read in high school is more likely to pick up a classic later. A kid that is forced to read classic literature to which they cannot relate is going to simply label the book as boring and perhaps not feel inclined to pick up a “classic” book ever again.
Now, do I think all classics should be purged from school curriculums? Absolutely not; let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think there’s plenty of classic books out there that work for teens: Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, 1984, To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher In the Rye, Huck Finn. Hell, maybe even Gatsby. These books can stay because kids can relate. Teach the classic authors in short stories or excerpts. And keep Shakespeare, because it’s full of swords and witches and murder and stuff. And that's cool. (Cue Beavis and Butthead laugh here.) But if it teaches a lesson, then throw Hunger Games or some equivalent in the mix. Kids should be taught to enjoy reading and to be kind, to be fair, to be just, to love, to be respectful, to be strong, and to live a life of value and meaning. That’s the lesson’s that should be taught through literature. I think that’s why the author’s wrote it, to tell a story, not to bore their readers. So if it comes down to a modern young adult novel or a Dickens novel- pitch the classic and give the kids something they can earnestly sink their teeth into.
Now, a few final points for my soapbox:
There’s a time and a place for making kids and teenagers do things they don’t want to do. Adults do have insight on the value of something that might escape a younger individual. But I don’t know if literature is the place to do that. Reading? Yes. Reading Dickens? Maybe not. I think expanding the literature available for young readers has been a good thing. I’m sure there are teenagers that are all about the literature that is assigned in school, even if most classmates hate it. I LOVED Ethan Frohm by Edith Wharton even though everyone else seemed to hate it. So there will always be some kids that are literary-minded anyway. But those kids will seek out the books anyway. That’s what they do- they’re readers.
Also, for those concerned that if we miss the chance to have the kids read these classics in school, people will never read them. What if the only thing they choose to read is Twilight?! So what? People who don’t want to read classics as adults will not want to read them as teenagers, so you’re not really losing an audience there. People who read Twilight might also like other books as well. Low-brow does not preclude High-brow. My appreciation for Les Miserables (my favorite book) is not cancelled out by my enjoyment of The DaVinci Code. And people who view Twilight and The DaVinci Code as the apex of literature, well- they were never gonna pick up Faulkner anyway.
And these classic works of literature are considered classics because they’re GOOD BOOKS, not because teenagers have to read them. People will keep reading the classics if they like to read books. Look at me, for example: The Grapes of Wrath? Great book. Read it as an adult. Of Mice and Men? Read it as an adult. Loved it. 1984? Read it as an adult. Catcher in the Rye? Read it as an adult. Brave New World? Read it as an adult. Huck Finn? Read it as an adult. Black Boy? Read it as an adult. The Great Gatsby? Read it as an adult. And some of these I wasn't even assigned in school and I read 'em anyway! You know why I read these books? Because I heard as a teenager they were great books. And I continued to hear they were great books, and I wanted to read them. But I was able to wait until I could really understand them, could connect with them, could immerse myself in a world to which I could relate. Let’s not ruin good works of literature for further generations. Introduce them, talk about how good they are, and then let people find it on their own at the right time.
So here's to letting young adults read books written for young adults. Here’s a few further articles on the value of modernizing reading curriculum:
High school reading lists get a modern makeover
Young Adult Literature in the High School
So, share your thoughts on this. English teachers? Former students? Current teenagers? What are your thoughts on my