Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Classic Literature- Too old to be any good?

A friend posted a link to the The Today Show's 10 Books You Really Should Have Read in High School.  I read it, because I am a bibliophile, and I know for a fact that my High School Literature career falls far short of what it should have in the sense of "classic" novels.

With that said, I’ve only read four of the titles from the Today Show list, and two of which I read in Junior High School (both in 7th grade).  I was in a gifted education program in Junior High School, and a Humanities track in High School.  The Humanities track consisted of a program that included five years of English, five years of History, and five years of Foreign Language, including two years of Latin.

I took the standard English classes that were required of all students.  9th grade’s English classes were related directly to our History courses... whatever region we studied in 9th grade (The Middle East, China, Japan, South America), we read literature from those countries. Two English classes with novels we weren’t interested in, with the same teacher for both semesters was pure torture.

10th grade was no better.  We read- blech- the classics .  Boring, Boring, BORING with a capital B.  I distinctly remember “reading” Great Expectations by Dickens, and Cry, the Beloved Country.  Reading during sophomore year of High School consisted of Spark Notes.  Needless to say, I was bored.  Though we did read parts of the The Canterbury Tales with our former mentally insane (I’m not kidding) English teacher and I enjoyed the Tales immensely. I re-read the Canterbury Tales in their original language in College and loved it even more. (PS- All the links are to wikipedia, in case you want a taste of what the book is about).

11th grade was an upshot in the dark- a whole, long, glorious year of creative writing.  I loved every, single minute of it (just as I enjoyed every, single minute of the year of creative writing I took in College).  But then again, this was writing, not reading literature.  BIG difference.

12th grade was the year I doubled up.  I took AP English, which was DIFFICULT, even for me.  Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Sound and the Fury, the Bible, Cold Mountain, The Poisonwood Bible, Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment, The Great Gatsby... we barreled through books, pulling them apart and putting them back together, while my teacher droned “Where are the words? What do they mean? How are they used?” (his personal battle cry).  If anything AP English really did prepare me for college English classes. 

I also took electives- Literature and the American Musical (!! fun!!!) and 80s and 90s Lit.  Both were fantastic and I really did enjoy the books.  We read Ragtime and Wicked, wrote our own musicals, and dove into The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Nobody’s Fool, The House of the Spirits, and Like Water for Chocolate (the four preceeding books being my absolute favorites in every sense of the word). 

But going back to the Today Show List-- in case you don’t want to click on their link, here are the titles:
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)
  • The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)
  • The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (1951)
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
  • Siddhartha by Herman Hesse (1922)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
  • The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (1943)
I’ve included the first publication date for each novel, in parentheses after the author’s name.  The most recently published book in this list is 51 years old.  The earliest published book on the list is a mere 198 years old.  Average year of publication = 1903.

Umm... seriously?  

I’m not saying these books aren’t worthy of being read.  I happened to enjoy the Scarlett Letter, The Great Gatsby (and not because I may or not may not be descended from Fitzgerald), Pride and Prejudice, and Lord of the Flies.  And yes, those are the only four books I’ve read from that list, and the only one I read in my own High School class was the Great Gatsby.  (Scarlett Letter was a summer reading assignment in 7th grade, I read P&P just to read it, and I read Lord of the Flies in 7th grade).

I recently finished a Children’s Literature course for my Master’s degree.  We had several discussions about teaching older novels, classics, if you will, at all age and grade levels.  The conclusion we came to? Out with the old and in with the new.  Sure, teach one or two of those novels.  But don’t discredit newer pieces of literature.  There is plenty out there written about the same themes that students might be more inclined to actually pick up, instead of scrolling through spark notes...

Here are my more modern recommendations to update the list.  Like the original list, all of these novels deal with difference facets of human nature.

The oldest book on my list? Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, 1997, 14 years old.  The most recent book on my list? The Hunger Games, 3 years old.  Average year of publication = 2002.  That’s an average of an entire century later.  The quality of literature (across a variety of genres) is high in these novels, and most importantly, the achieve the following:

(*The following are some of the critical lens statements that are to be utilized by students at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, NY for their summer reading assignment)

Literature opens a dark window on the soul, revealing more about what is bad in human nature than what is good.

A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. (William Styron)

The only worthwhile literature is that which makes you think about your own life.

To be truly memorable a book must have at its core one of life’s three great quests:  the quest for love, truth or power.

Courage is measured by an individual’s willingness to keep fighting even when the likelihood of victory is small.

Readers can learn as much about life from the villains of literature as from the heroes.

Few stories are purely triumphs or disasters:  most are mixtures of success and failure.

The function of literature is to take us away from our daily lives and return us changed.

Literature exposes injustice and creates change.

Literature teaches us compassion and tolerance for each other’s differences.

Memorable literature has characters with whom we can identify.

Literature inspires us to become better people by revealing what is possible inside ourselves.

Literature holds up a mirror to our souls.

Great literature makes us see what we never saw before.

If you want to test a man’s character, give him a little power. (Abraham Lincoln)

Death is more universal than life; everyone dies but not everyone lives. (A. Sachs)

Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it. (Helen Keller)

In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. (Anne Frank)

Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. (William Jennings Bryan)

Wisdom comes only through suffering. (Aeschylus)

Literature is a kind of intellectual light which, like the light of the sun, may sometimes enable us to see what we do not like. (Samuel Johnson)

Strong literature is not an escape from life; reading strong literature puts you in the deepest currents of life.

So what do you think? Have you read the Today Show list? Are there any books you would swap out? Disagree with my choices for my updated list?

No comments:

Post a Comment