Thursday, May 24, 2012

Classic Literature Rant

The other day, I was browsing through the boards over at Absolute Write, when I came across a thread titled "Books You've Thrown Against the Wall". In some cases, books were flung (either literally or metaphorically) because the content was triggering in some way, but usually the readers just plain hated the book. Among the usual suspects (ahemTwilight*cough*) were a whole lot of Books Assigned in English Class, and almost invariably the poster would apologize for hating on a "classic", or self-consciously joke about not being smart enough to "get" the book.

It got me musing:

Why do so many otherwise intelligent and enthusiastic readers hate "classic" novels?

Is it us? Have we been ruined by short-attention-span-inducing modern media like untold number of cranky, priggish English professors would have us believe? Or is it because our inner teenagers still rebel against having had these books forced upon us by the grown-ups?

Is it just that times have changed, and some of these "timeless" stories are actually more a product of their time than our English teachers wanted to admit? Are some books we call classics simply not relevant any more?

Is it that some of these books actually kind of suck? I mean, how much did they actually revise back then, when they had to write it all by hand? And when there was 1/1,000,000,000th of the competition for the public's entertainment hours and dollars?

I don't know the answers to these questions. But I do know that I was a voracious reader as a kid. I started reading very young and my proud parents indulged me, showering me with books and rarely complaining about the amount of time I spent staring at the page.

By the time was 11, I was probably reading at a late High School level, and had already read my way through all the YA books available in the late 1970's (which was a somewhat depressing selection of "issue" books, primarily serving to warn young girls against the evils of sex, drugs, running away from home, parties with no adult supervision, teenage pregnancy, shoplifting, hitchhiking, and guys in vans). I wasn't sure what to read next. My mother didn't have a lot of time for pleasure reading, and when she did read it was mainly Mysteries, which weren't my cup of tea. I was glad when I hit HS and my English teachers started assigning real, "grown-up" books. Finally, I'd get some guidance to develop my adult reading tastes! But to my dismay, I disliked most of the books I read for school. They were hard to read. And boring. And were about eras I knew nothing about and people I couldn't relate to. Some of them I didn't bother to finish.

And they were all so old. The most contemporary book I read in HS was The Catcher in the Rye (hated it, thought Holden was a tool), which was published 20 years before I was born. But my teacher presented it to us like it was totally radical to read something for school that was written so late. Literature, it was implied, had stopped a long time ago. Nothing being created today had enough merit to warrant close study.

This was all very confusing for me, especially since I'd wanted to be a writer since I could remember. I decided that maybe I'd been wrong. Maybe I didn't like to read after all. Maybe it was just another childhood love I'd grown out of, like John Travolta and unicorn figurines. Maybe writing books wasn't for me after all, if I didn't even like to read them, and if everything important in Literature had already happened.

Fortunately, I'd discovered poetry by this time. I became a poet. I wore all black and read Sylvia Plath and was on the staff of the literary magazine, and then I went to an artsy little college where I majored in English and studied poetry with a semi-famous semi-perverted Irish poet. And then I took "Forms of Modern Fiction" with a young and daring professor, and read Italo Svevo, Mikhail Bulgakov, Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Thomas Pynchon, and Ursula K. LeGuin for the first time. Surrealism! Magical Realism! Science Fiction! Holy shit! I DO still like novels!

Another thing that sticks with me about that class is that the professor included a book on the syllabus that had been published only a few months before the class began (See Under: Love by David Grossman). She'd read it that summer and been so impressed with it she wanted us to read it too. I was so blown away by that, by what a gutsy move it was to have us read something without being 100% sure that college kids would still be reading it in their English classes a hundred years from now.

It was a total revelation: novels still spoke to me, and important novels were still being written right now. I changed my concentration from poetry to fiction writing by the end of the semester, and in the years since I have continued to discover new authors and genres that I love.

But I still mourn those ten years I didn't read fiction at all, because my English class convinced me I didn't like books.

Now, I'm a teacher myself. I might even be a High School English teacher at some point in the future. I totally get why we make kids read the same books we read in High School English. It's all about cultural literacy. In our society, part of being well-educated is catching references to Hamlet and The Great Gatsby on episodes of The Simpsons. But... and I realize this is totally blasphemous... do they actually need to literally read every one of these "culturally necessary" works in order to gain the literacy? For instance, the overwhelming majority of college-educated people know the Oedipus myth: king banishes his baby son because of a prediction that son will kill him, son grows up to hear prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother, son tries to escape his fate, winds up killing father and marrying mother anyway, puts his own eyes out. But how many of those people have actually read Oedipus Rex? I have, and you know what? All I remember of it is the same skeleton of the story that almost anyone else could tell you. Another example: I've never read Merchant of Venice, nor seen it performed. But I've absorbed enough of the story to "get" references to Shylock and understand what people are getting at when they say "a pound of flesh".

I guess what I'm saying is that there should be a balance. Yes, kids should read some of these books; they should stretch themselves, and see what they can get out of reading the full work that you can't just get from a synopsis and class discussion. But reading isn't just about filling the bucket of cultural literacy. In the SAT tutoring I do, I can always tell which kids read for pleasure: they're the ones with the vastly superior vocabularies, the ones who can figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word in context, the ones who understand inference, the ones who have an instinctive sense of the rules of grammar, and the ones whose own writing sounds like a college freshman wrote it rather than a 12-year-old. And it's not classics they've been reading (except for school... and then they tell me that they hate those books and just SparkNotes them...); it's YA, usually of the SF/Fantasy ilk.

English classes should be doing all they can to encourage kids to find and read the books that speak to them-- not because kids today (with the hair, and the music...) are too addled by video games and text-messaging to appreciate "the classics", but because the academic advantages of reading something they're engaged with are too great to risk turning them off reading altogether. And because if the "Books You've Thrown Against the Wall" thread is any indication, a whole freakin' lot us in the pre-cell phone generation hated those classics, too.

Why can't kids create their own reading lists, sharing ideas and books recommendations with other kids who share their tastes, and then read one or two assigned "classics", book club style? And if it makes us all hand-wringy that they're winding up with cultural literacy holes, why not just tell them the story and point out some pop-culture references to it? The kids who are intrigued by the story or have a bent for older literature will be inspired to read it... and the ones who aren't wouldn't have read it even if it were assigned. They would've SparkNotes'd it.

And for the record, I threw Sons and Lovers and Ulysses against the wall. I thought they were both complete crap.

P.S. 500 words done.

1 comment:

  1. In her forward to Lavinia (which I LOVED), Ursula LeGuin talked about how there was a period not so long ago where every schoolchild had read the Aeneid, mostly in the original Latin. It's funny how cultural literacy changes so much more slowly than culture does.