The youth of today (myself being one of them) are generally more concerned with technology than with literature, and the majority vehemently hate the books that are picked by teachers for English class. These books are often classics, often more than 50 years old, and often written by someone long dead. As highschool students, we categorize these books into a hate list, regardless of the content or genre, solely because we are required to read them. Don’t get me wrong, some of those books are actually bad (based on personal and professional opinions), and send a skewed message of natural human behavior (I’m looking at you Lord of the Flies) but many of them are far more entertaining and meaningful than we allow them to be. While we may not like the environment of English class, or the fact that a book was chosen for us, for many students, that English class will be the only time that they read, period.
As well as making sure that young people are reading, an activity that is scientifically proven to improve cognitive function, teachers make sure that students are reading impactful books; the structure of a professional choosing the learning material ensures that the kid sitting next to you obsessed with Fortnite (a popular video game) doesn’t read the same graphic novel for the 11th time pretending it’s Vonnegut. So it goes. In addition, regardless of whether we actually liked the required reading, many of these books still have a place in our minds, signifying the impact of the literary work (exemplified by the fact that I still shudder thinking about Johnny Tremain, a book that I had to read in 5th grade). As well as, you know, being employed to teach people the ins and outs of the language and having the authority to tell students what to read, teachers generally enjoy the subject that they’re teaching, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’ve read the reading material at least once, if not multiple times. They care about what they’ve read, and what they’re teaching, creating an enthusiasm that will translate into the classroom, whether subtly or overtly. Noticing a teacher’s excitement about a novel can immediately make that book seem less boring, and showing curiosity or interest in the parts that they find important can teach you more about the meaning of the book than complaining about how boring it is to your friends outside of class.
The classroom environment and the judgement of peers also serves as a large contributor to the english class hate list. Personally, my opinions of books we read in class changed drastically when I was reading them on my own than when I was reading them in class. When I was in my own, I was able to formulate my own thoughts and opinions on the material, rather than listening to a tirade of “this book is so-insert negative adjective here” from my classmates every other page. Why am I going on and on about classics and classroom environments? Because unless your chosen profession involves classical literature in some way, most people won’t read classics after they finish college and, depending on their school’s requirements, high school. You may be thinking, “Why would I want to read a book by a dead person who writes in riddles half the time and doesn’t know what an iPhone is?”
To you I say: You should want to read classics because they teach you about life. The time period may be different but the messages are the same, whether the novel is focused around love, happiness, war, mortality, or human nature. If these pieces of literature didn’t have meaning or weren’t considered important we wouldn’t be teaching them anymore. If the Iliad and Odyssey didn’t mean anything to those that read them they wouldn’t’ve lasted a millennia, and if Sophocles’ Oedipus hadn’t been so disturbing than maybe Freud would’ve had more normal thoughts when it comes to mother and son relationships. Classics are given their name because their messages and themes transcend time, the same way Coco Chanel’s little black dress is still considered a staple in the closets of most women today. These classics can have different meanings depending on the age that they are read as well.
I chose to read Pride and Prejudice for the first time when I was about thirteen or fourteen. While it might be a slightly out of the ordinary book for a new teenager, it still resonated deeply with me and remains one of my favorite books. However, at age thirteen, I didn’t have the mental capacity to absorb the messages that Jane Austen was trying to tell me. Rereading parts of it at age seventeen and watching critical analysis videos deepened my understanding of the novel and gave me new perspectives on the historical significance of the book. I am sure that if I am to read it again down the road that I will be able to see messages and details that were not clear to me at seventeen.
This type of learning is applicable to any piece of literature, classic or not, but picking up some of those books that you hated in school might change your mind about them, even if it’s just because you’re reading it for fun, and not a grade. You may still be thinking about the level of difficulty of the writing and how tedious these books are to read, but surprise surprise, the more you read classics, the easier they become to understand. There are still those that will categorize classics as a horror of high school, or view them as reading material only appropriate for snobby hipsters, but let me leave you with this: Storytelling is the world’s oldest form of entertainment, whether these stories were told orally or written on scrolls, stone tablets, or lined paper, and these stories matter. Yes, looking toward the future and creating new literary works are important, but we cannot do that without reflecting on the lessons of the past, whether fictional or not. History has a habit of repeating itself, and the knowledge of the past can help us prevent disasters from reoccurring, but only if we allow that knowledge into our minds.
- Annabelle Mackson