Email: What about the classics?
Elaine asked some great questions about the value of reading classic literature last week. My answers are interspersed.
Hi Julie and Jon –
We need to be making some literature decisions with my 16 yr-old dd as she embarks on her sophomore year. She does not find literature readily engaging, preferring Reader’s Digest and Calvin and Hobbes to Pride and Prejudice (she did make it 3/4 of the way, yeah!). She has found she enjoys James Herriott’s writing. And after sticking with To Kill A Mockingbird in the discussion forum with Jon and the other students, she did find that she enjoyed reading the book. I new it would be a stretch for her because it wasn’t particularly relevant to her. I think having the forum made a huge difference. (Thank you again!)
Wonderful! To Kill a Mockingbird is more accessible than a lot of “classic” literature since it is set in a more recent era and written in the 1960s. It is a well crafted novel dealing with profound themes. Literature (versus fiction) is said to be those novels that have layers to be investigated. Fiction is simply any novel that tells a story. TKAM falls into the literature category for that reason.
I was leaning toward signing her up for the Slingshot because of our previously successful experience and then I read the list. Ugh! Hemingway and Steinbeck–two of my personally least-liked authors I was forced to read in high school.
I totally understand! Reading “classics” is one reason I didn’t become an English major in college. I chose history. I didn’t like being made to read anything fictional that I didn’t choose for myself. I did not like American lit in high school and really didn’t develop any affection for American authors until my late thirties. Jon, by contrast, got his Master’s in American lit because these are his favorite writers.
Hemingway was too opaque for me. It wasn’t until I took to reading short stories that I gained any appreciation for his brilliance (I was 37 at the time). I still don’t like his novels. I appreciated Steinbeck because his book The Grapes of Wrath dealt with a historical event and made it come to life (fits more with the history side of me than the lit side). I read that in high school. But his other books were so depressing, I have never returned to Steinbeck myself.
When Jon was picking books for the Slingshot, he chose the ones he likes. Amazingly. And he likes these books a lot. He sees the levels and he enjoys bringing those to life for readers and students. When he talks to me about books like these, I find myself suddenly interested and more willing to “take a second look.” Since he leads the discussions, he gets to pick. And of course, these are modern classics because truly Hemingway and Steinbeck are brilliant writers. Whether you enjoy them is an entirely different way to assess them.
Jon has always loved literature and would read anything with print on a page. That’s the difference between us and why he went the lit route and I went the history route in college.
While examining my own gut response to these authors and remembering other “classics” I thought were tedious at best and trash at worst, I could see I was chasing my tail again trying to come up with a sound philosophy for our approach to literature. I am genuinely interested in your thoughts on the reason people should read various fictional authors. I personally enjoy literature. My all-time favorite is Austen, but I have enjoyed Twain, Dickens, Les Mis, Cather, Shakespeare and more. I don’t enjoy Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tess of the D’urbervilles (sp?), Poe (although he could turn a phrase). I think you get the gist.
Right! This is how it is with literature. Not all of it appeals to everyone. It’s important to find out what you enjoy, to taste novels you might not naturally select for yourself to discover how literature speaks to you. But I certainly don’t think there is a list everyone has to work through by a certain age. In fact, I had never read Jane Austen until I was 35. I read more classic literature in my twenties and thirties than at any time prior. Why? Because Jon had a kickin’ library! We lived in Morocco at the timeâ€”no TV, tons of time. I slowly worked through the shelves of his bookcase and became a “literate” person. And I discovered all kinds of writers and novels I would not have read otherwise through that process. Wonderful, rich time of reading and discussing with Jon, the Master.
I also discovered that I love short stories. They’re my favorite. I love the layers. I don’t enjoy summer beach reads or the typical novels on the NYTimes best seller list. But I discovered in my twenties and thirties that I loved a “classic” that had those layers to investigate. That doesn’t mean, however, that I like all classic novels. Some just aren’t my taste. Some of the subject matter isn’t of interest. But I can recognize now what makes a novelist a brilliant writer as opposed to a good story teller.
Jon and I were talking the other day about his college fiction class that he teaches at Xavier. I’ve taught it for him before when he’s been out of town. He was saying that I’ve developed a real knack for seeing the layers in stories, in the writing. I told him that that skill has come mostly through writing (as in mastering the craft) more than through reading (which is the way it came for him). We had a great discussion about it.
So, what’s the purpose as you see it for reading fictional literature? And given Brave Writer’s orientation to student-centered learning, how do you meld the two?
I think it’s perfectly fine to save even classic works of fiction for a time when the student is genuinely interested. One way to support a student who is not inclined to read “the harder stuff” is to start with film versions of the books. If the film version entertains and captures the student’s imagination, then reading the novel can be an easier task than facing it cold. I also think it helps to have someone read those books with you so that you can talk about them, can discover themes and symbolism that you would miss otherwise. That’s what enriches the classic novel reading experience.
If your daughter is not naturally inclined to read “the classics,” then you might want to simply select quality fiction that matches her areas of interest (like for me, it was anything that also had a historical component). Keep her reading to a few well-chosen books rather than slogging through a list that kills any affection she has for reading. And trust that over a lifetime, as she matures, she’ll have ample opportunity to expand her own reading list (and will perhaps have the joy I had of reading a classic for the first time as an adult, and enjoying it because I had life experiences that helped me relate to the stories that would have gone over my head as a teen).
A great example of this principle.
I read The Great Gatsby in high school. I liked it so-so. Then I reread it two years ago. I loved it. It is now in my top two works of fiction I’ve ever read. (My top book is A Room with a View by E.M.Forster). I was mesmerized by Fitzgerald’s mastery of language, the creative use of point of view, the symbolism, the dialog, the descriptions… and the story line. Everything. I can’t say enough good about that book. But in high school? Didn’t even totally get it. I don’t think I had a teacher who did a good job of unfolding it to me either.
In 9th grade, I had a fabulous teacher who helped me to love Beowulf, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and even James Thurber. So it really can be a matter of having the right teacher to help you dig into meaty, difficult material and then come out better for it.
I know this is a big question, but I am genuinely interested and hope you have time to answer. I trust you both have reasoned this question beyond the standard response of “it’s a classic, so she should know what it says.” I have never personally bought into the notion that just because a number of people were persuaded that something was good, doesn’t in fact make it good or worthy.
Jon would say that there is a benefit to reading classic works of fiction because they enhance your cultural literacy. When someone references Ahab and the whale, for instance, I still don’t really “get” the reference having never read the book. But I do get it if someone says that so-and-so has a “Mr. Darcy-like” air about him. That kind of thing.
Also, reading master writers enhances your vocabulary, enriches your awareness of the complexity of human interactions and relationships, and populates your imagination with “others” – those people different from us, who come from other times and places we would not “travel” to even if we could. Literature expands who you are and your place in the world.
Hope that helps you think more about how to incorporate classic fiction into your particular family.
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