With a title like that, I can well imagine that lovers of the classics are already chomping at the bit and scrolling down to the comments to chomp at me. But please, bear with me…
Think back to your high school days and the books that were “required reading” (as though we read half of what we were handed by our teachers…). If you’re having a shortage of memory, here’s a handy link to help you out. Likely it your high school reading list wasn’t 319 books long (certainly mine wasn’t!), and it probably didn’t include some of the more awesome books on this list. I don’t think my 10th grade English teacher would have assigned Ender’s Game.
No, if your class was like mine, you were forced to plod through The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and Lord Jim. Maybe you got lucky and your teacher handed you The Count of Monte Cristo (I will always be thankful to Mrs. Campbell for that one), and maybe looking back you can now appreciate the likes of Heart of Darkness, but at the time it seemed like English teachers across the world were actually members of an evil league of evil teachers bent on killing teenagers by the power of boredom.
It was in these classes and through these books that you learned about all the most important facets of “good literature” – symbolism, personification, exposition, characterization, climax, anti-climax, lots of other words that end in -ism and -tion and… bathos…
You also learned not only what those terms are and what they mean, but you also learned which literary devices are most important, and how to recognize them when they’re done right because they’re done the way that the authors of these classic works were done.
Which brings me to my point – who says these are the most important literary devices? Who says the only right way to do them is to do them the way the classics do them? And aren’t there some very important things about good literature that we could learn from books that most English teachers would never consider putting on their required reading list?
Take the example of To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most read books by high schoolers in this country. That story taught us a lot of things about ethics, stereotyping, catharsis, sacrifice, virtue, and so on, and did so using lots of -isms and -tions. All very meaningful and important lessons. But why that book to teach them? I could use The Gray Prince by Jack Vance to teach you all the same lessons, as well as important lessons about heroism and perseverance. And all that within the context of an exciting science fiction adventure, which is sure to be more engaging to the bookworms in the class, because they’re usually into genre fiction more than the classics anyway.
There are many other examples. Of Mice and Men taught us that some people are stupid, some people are mean, some people are dangerous, and some people are combinations of those. Or something. Actually, I’m not sure I really understood much about that book. All I remember is thinking that there were so many ways the situation could have been handled better than for a guy to kill his retarded friend.
Point is, if the lesson is, “Life is really hard, and sometimes you’re faced with really difficult choices, and you may never know if it was the right one or not,” then I can think of a hundred more interesting books to teach that lesson than Of Mice and Men. And they might even teach better lessons! For instance, contrast this: “You, my large and simple friend, have become dangerous, and since I don’t know if I can protect you from these men who are coming to lynch you, turn around and close your eyes while I take the easy way out and kill you” with this: “If by my life or my death I can protect you, I will” (Aragorn, Lord of the Rings, and then he goes on to make good on it). A better lesson by far!
How about coming of age stories? We’re stuck with Bridge to Terebithia (a sham fantasy, if you ask me), or Catcher in the Rye. How about The Prydain Chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, or the Cadwal Chronicles by Jack Vance? Ender’s Game? Ender’s Shadow? Heck, even The Eye of the World has a sense of coming of age to it, as these young men and women from a small village learn that the world is far larger than they ever knew. Coming of age is a major element is so many Sci-Fi and Fantasy stories. Do we need to lock ourselves into just a select few books to teach us what it means to go from childhood to adulthood?
And don’t get me started on The Crucible. As far as I know, the only point of that book is that Christians are superstitious bigots and all teenage girls are vindictive liars. Only one of those messages is true and worth learning.
Here’s the real question in my mind – Why are the classics the classics? Who decided that they were the books that best exemplify the life lessons high schoolers need to learn, and best teach the important elements of English literature? Do you want to know what I think? I think that somewhere along the way some professor at a university really liked the lessons taught in a particular book. He liked it so much he chose to use that book to teach his students, but to make it more than just a promotion of his favorite guilty pleasure, he drew out all the elements of English literature that it contained, and said, “This is how to really write well!” And all those students went on to teach their classrooms, and some went on to be professors, and so it has spread. We’ve thus become locked into definitions of what makes for a true classic and what makes for good English literature.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I don’t love many books that would be considered classics. And I’m not saying that the classics don’t have a place. I think there is some good to using some of these classic stories for what they can teach us. I just think that there are so many books out there that rarely – if ever – make it onto the required reading lists that ought to. It’s time to start including the books we all love and are excited to read, and see their literary value for what it is.
And I close with what I consider is one of the finest pieces of poetry every written:All that is gold does not glitter, Not all who wander are lost, The old that is strong does not wither, Deep roots are unreached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken, A light from the shadows shall spring, Renewed shall be blade that was broken, The crownless again shall be king.