What’s in a Classic? or A story by any other name would smell as stale…

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.

“I will END you, Genshead!”

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…

A graphic depiction of bathos intolerance.

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.
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18 thoughts on “What’s in a Classic? or A story by any other name would smell as stale…

  1. Well, you’ve touched on the fallacy. The “classics” that most people read in high school from about 1970 onward aren’t even the “classics.” Books like “To Kill A Mockingbird” were specifically chosen for their political message far more than for their -ism’s, -tion’s, and bathos. Yes, some of the “classics” get interspersed in there, but frankly, we had it good at our high school. There are plenty of high schools nationwide where all they read is the stuff pushing a particular political agenda.

    Go read this book, then lament and wail your misbegotten youth:

    (And btw, the above is not just a political screed against how liberals are ruining education. It’s literally a textbook for your own self-taught course in English Lit., and a pretty darn good one at that.)

    There is a logical argument against some of what you’re saying. You wrote, “they’re usually into genre fiction more than the classics anyway.” True. Which is exactly why you make them read the classics. They’re going to read the genre fiction anyway, so they’ll learn all those lessons from the genre fiction on their own.

    Well… except for the fact that many children in America aren’t actually reading anymore. That’s a deeper problem with roots in other places.

    I’m a bit conflicted, honestly. The thing that’s nice about the true “classics” is that they really are good literature. And there is another lesson worth learning in life from being forced to read them: “My tastes aren’t perfect and actually, if all I did was consume the popcorn and bubble gum I like to read I’d be poorer for it.”

      1. You made the stronger case that I for some reason hesitated to make in my initial post, which is that the books that I might label as “pseudo-classics” are really just socialism in the guise of literature. I suspect that they are often presented by teachers not as a way to teach good literature and appreciation for storytelling, but as a means to change the thinking of impressionable young minds.

        The true classics, I will say, do have a place. There are a lot of stories that really are worth reading outside of genre fiction, and I think it’s good for teachers to encourage these. I would not have read the Count of Monte Cristo on my own, but Mrs. Campbell shoved it in my face and said, “You will read this,” and I have loved it since that day.

        But interesting to note is that many students would not react as I did to that. She knew that I was a mature enough reader in 12th grade that I could get through all 1500 pages of small print, and even grasp the heavier elements of the story. But that may not be every reader. However, look at Vance’s story The Chateau D’If (an homage to Dumas’ book). It tells the same basic story, only in a much shorter form and with the use of some really cool sci-fi tech. I might be able to get a high schooler who would never touch Dumas to get excited about Count of Monte Cristo by first having them read Chateau D’If and then saying, “Hey, this was based on a much larger book, which is an even better story, but it will take some time to get through. You game for it?”

        Anyway, yeah, classics are important, but it’s a tough thing leading young people to appreciate them, and sometimes forcing them isn’t the way to do it either. No matter what, I think there’s a point where certain books that have become “must read” for high schoolers just need to go.

  2. I agree. How can these books be called classics when there are better books out there? Some novels are exceptions though. I believe that ray Bradbury’s novel fahrenheit 451 should be a classic because it is actually a great read. (though I don’t know why the schools try to make you read it in 8th grade because you are still too young to really understand the novel) I believe that things like The Hunger Games should make it into the classics because there are many lessons in those and the readers would enjoy it! (Harry potter included)

    1. Fahrenheit! Yeah! that is a classic! 🙂

      It’s so hard to figure out what’s going to be considered a classic when it’s this new. I tend to think that “classics” will be what forty- and fifty-year-olds remember fondly from their youth — for this reason the Charlie Brown Christmas is still kicking strong (and rightfully so, IMO). I guess we could say Harry Potter is a likely classic, then. Hunger Games is still too new, though, I think to give a good indication…

    2. I’m with you that there are some books out there in the required reading that are well worth it, and there are a lot out there that should be on the list but aren’t. Of course, you run into the issue that many students resent being told they have to read a certain book, and sometimes the best way for a teacher to shut down excitement for a particular book is to assign it. Maybe teachers should branch out a little into the realm of providing book choices to teach a particular lesson. For instance, they want to teach on the subject of the importance of friendship, so they provide four different books on that subject, and students can select from those – adding that element of choice can make a big difference in the level of excitement. Of course, I’m sure there are already teachers doing that.

  3. Every teacher will have a different metric when putting together his or her list of reading. One man’s classic is another woman’s Ethan Frome. (I will never understand why we read that one in high school…)

    I agree with Kenichi: Many are probably picked because the teachers know the students would never be exposed to them otherwise. I’ll admit that Of Mice and Men would be foreign to me had I not been forced to read it, but I loved it when I did read it. The cinematic quality of the scenes, the heavy atmosphere — I enjoyed it.

    I guess my question would be: What is the goal of the course of study? If the point is to be introduced to what are considered classics, then classics shall be read. If the point is to read what is considered good literature, than we must read good literature! If the point is to become familiar with all the different -isms, well, it doesn’t matter what we read as long as they are strong examples of -isms.

    It’s important to read classics, though, for the same reason for non-Christians to have familiarity with the Bible: they inform our culture. If we’re going to understand how our culture works, we need to know what the Great White Whale is and why we must Let Slip the Dogs of War. If children aren’t introduced, our culture shifts — and maybe that’s one (one!) of the reasons our culture has shifted so much: so few students actually read the assignments, or teachers have rejected teaching difficult things and instead have tackled the task of getting children to love reading.

    Getting children to love reading IS important — it’s imperative! — but IMO, you don’t use “the classics” to do it. So, again, I go back to: what’s the purpose of the course of study?

    1. You’ve got a point, what is the goal of the course. I fear, as Ken pointed out, that in many cases, the point is to change the beliefs of the student, which may be why certain books are chosen. In other cases, it may be a desire to develop an appreciation for good literature, but then I think we need to expand our definition of “good literature”.

      1. It may also be important to ask who gets to decide — the individual teacher or the school district? I know at least some cases where it’s the school district making the choices.

  4. I have a lot of opinions about what books are worth reading in school 🙂

    My problem with reading a lot of the so-called “classics” is that they tend to fall into two categories:

    – The overdone ones that EVERYONE reads simply because… well, *everyone* reads them (whether or not they actually want to), or because the school already has bought the curriculum for them. “Of Mice and Men” definitely falls into this category, as does “The Crucible,” “A Separate Peace,” “The Death of a Salesman,” and all of those Stephen Crane war stories we had to read (my personal LEAST favorites)

    – The ones that are actually good literature, but go way over the heads of 90% of the students and teach them to HATE “classic” literature. I LOVED reading “The Great Gatsby” because I enjoyed that kind of descriptive writing style and all of the symbolism in it, but by the end of it I was so sick of my peer’s complaints about how they didn’t “get it,” that I was happy to be done with it. Same holds true for the Shakespeare plays or Poe short stories that we read.

    So, yeah, I’m all for reading non-“classics” in the classroom and exposing students to a variety of genres and eras of fiction.

    1. And we here we come to “different strokes for different folks” — your examples of hatred were some of the few I enjoyed being assigned (Though not Crane — I’ll agree on that one!), while I loathed Gatsby.

      Honestly, I think a good curriculum would try to hit a wide variety of genres and styles to give a good sampling, and then a good teacher will encourage students to dig deeper into the novels each individual student enjoyed. Good teachers and figuring out that wide variety would be difficult though! (I wonder how much pre-college testing determines which books are pushed in high school?)

    2. I think you struck on it with the idea of variety. That’s one thing that I feel was missing in my school curricula. We didn’t read a wide range of genres, it was pretty much relegated to that list of fiction that everyone reads, which doesn’t include much in the way of sci-fi and fantasy. That’s where the shame is, to me – the impression is perhaps given, if unintentionally, that genre fiction isn’t REAL literature.

      1. Well in my high school, we study works of literature by time period. We started at the very beginning of America (American literature class) and proceeded through time. So we got to read similar authors, time periods wise, and experience many different styles of writing.

  5. My brother was actually assigned Ender’s Game, told me how awesome it was, and then I read it…

    Your article got me thinking about other good sci-fi examples. One of my favorite books growing up, and still great even as I age and embitter, is The Little Prince. Although maybe too juvenile to be called Sci-Fi, the gentle, simple ethic of the story impacted me as a “tween” far more than any of the other stuff I was digging up or being force-fed by my teachers: The Indian in the Cupboard, Gerseberms (my teachers hated me reading that series), the Ramona books… all completely forgettable.

    Not to mention my giant book of Aesop’s Fables I got when I was about 8. I LOVED that book and memorized (and still remember) every story put to pen. I don’t think even a single Fable was mentioned my entire pre-University academic career. But it explained a lot of idioms (“Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, “Sour Grapes” etc) and set the early stage for… you guessed it… microfiction!

    And now I’m thoroughly derailed. What were we talking about?

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