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 time—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.

11 Responses to “Email: What about the classics?”

  1. Jennifer Hansen says:

    I’m glad Elaine shared her initial reaction, because I felt the same way(she just put it into words much better than I ever could). I was disturbed to find that many of the more contemporary “classics” deal with mature subject matter: infidelity (The Awakening, The Great Gatsby), incest (The Sound and the Fury), etc… So I’ve been steering clear of most of them this summer as my son (voracious reader) and I have been selecting appropriate reading material. I’ve also been wrestling with whether or not to jump in to the literature discussion. With all of that said, I’m currently planning to have this 16.5 y.o. delve into the Slingshot discussions for the first time this year (his senior year) because of the guided study. I will also read the books myself so he and I can keep an open dialogue about issues of morality. I am hoping that the interaction and guidance provided will help to develop in him a discernment of both good literature and appropriate morals. I can’t wait for him to start!

  2. JoVE says:

    That all makes a lot of sense. Though how you guide students in “seeing the layers” when you didn’t “get” literature yourself is a bit of a stumbling block for me. I outlined some of my thoughts here and got some good responses though I am still mulling this over.

  3. Julie Bogart says:

    It is daunting when you haven’t had the background in literature. On the other hand, you are clearly an insightful thinker and writer. Trust your instincts. In the Arrow, Boomerang etc., we do offer you some keys into the literature to help you. For a book like Poppy, you want to focus on the literary elements more than themes and symbolism. There just isn’t much in that book. But there are wonderful uses of alliteration, consonance etc. that I’ve highlighted for you.

    As your kids get older, many novels lend themselves to that deeper investigation. Our online literature discussions are designed to help kids (and moms reading along) to learn how to see those other levels.

    You’re on the right track!

  4. Betsy says:

    We’ve (my 16yo son and I) have been working our way through Dickens and Austen this year. I was extremely reluctant to try either of these authors with him because for one thing, I had never read any Dickens (except for A Christmas Carol) and Austen only for school. And your comments about wanting to choose your fiction yourself struck a chord, Julie, and JoVE’s comments reminded me of my own lack of confidence in approaching the classics. But my brother-in-law, who is a great reader, encouraged me to try. He recommended that we watch Pride & Prejudice and then read it. This reminded me of your similar advice, Julie, so we did that. And that was just the beginning of our foray into Austen. I kept going with all her novels and the movies made from them), but my son didn’t have the same appetite. (I was so disappointed in the Mansfield Park movie!)

    Turns out though that he really likes Dickens. I had started by listening to a great audio recording of A Tale of Two Cities, which my son really enjoyed! We’re slowly progressing thru his other works. One book that really helped me appreciate Dickens was G.K. Chesterton’s “apology”. I can’t remember the title of the book, but Chesterton thought Dickens was a great man, and he pretty much convinced me. And made me eager to read Dickens’ other works. So now that we’ve gone thru Bleak House (book then movie) and Nicholas Nickleby (just the movie, which both boys [12 & 16] loved), we have Great Expectations on our plate.

    RE: Moby Dick. Your comments about this novel reminded me of a book I recently finished listening to, The Secret of Lost Things by Sheridan Haye. I loved that story! A girl from Tasmania moves to NYC and because of her work at a 2nd hand/rare bookstore, she is drawn into an intrigue about a lost Melville novel. It really gave me a whole new appreciation for Melville. (It couldn’t go anywhere but up, I’m afraid.) The girl reads Moby Dick during the story. That’s the closest I’ve ever come to picking up Moby Dick, and I just may do it, now that you’ve reminded me of it again. I guess this book functioned like a really good teacher, someone who really loved Moby Dick. It opened me up to the pleasure that I might find there.

    I also have to say something about the production of Silas Marner that I just listened to (I’m in the car a lot — can you tell?). What a terrific audio! The actor/reader did such a marvelous job with the dialog in that story and the characters that I could literally see them as he read. I seriously doubt whether I could have gotten as much out of my own reading of it. But having had this intro, the book itself seems much more approachable and attractive.

    Listening to books seems to open up a whole new path in my mind to literature appreciation and understanding. I can approach them from a whole different angle as compared to reading them. And it enhances my reading of the books too. Just a thought for approaching authors that put you off.


  5. Elaine says:

    Good Morning! Thanks for your comments, Ladies. I just finished reading your comment, JoVE, and it helped clarify another “wondering” I have.

    How necessary or important is literature deconstruction/analysis for a person? On one hand, I wonder if as a student one just needs to know it because one will encounter it in college, regardless of future use. On the other hand, I suppose I see it a little as Elizabeth Bennett might have and think it should only be done as it gives one pleasure. 🙂 My personal orientation is so strongly toward truth that I think I have a hard time giving too much time and effort to analysis if it’s just for the sake of being able to do it, since we are applying it to fiction.

    What may seem inconsistent is that I personally love literature. I find a lot of pleasure in it and enjoy discussing plots and characters and the turn of a phrase. I think I would have enjoyed this no matter whether I had ever encountered it in school.

    So, I guess this particular question boils down to (for me at this point, before any breakfast) how important is literary analysis for a student and how important is it in the scheme of life as a whole?

    Thanks so much for in engaging in this discussion! You all are helping me greatly as I seek to clarify my thinking and educational approach.


  6. Elaine says:

    I now have a policy of never composing an email while hungry. 🙂

    I realized upon further thought today that my question could be perceived as a condemnation of literary analysis or negative comment on those who love it and/or think it essential.

    Not at all my intention.

    The reason I’ve asked the question here is because I greatly respect Jon and Julie and the entire Bravewriter approach and have found the people who post here/participate with them to be of the kind who challenges and encourages me.

    You are the very ones in whom I feel confident enough to ask my candid questions. When I’m not sure of the reasons for doing something, I generally try to test out the thought, shake it, turn it upside and sideways, whatever it takes for me to feel like I’ve got a personal handle on the principle so I can choose a reasoned direction.

    So, when I question something, I’m not suggesting it should be something different. I’m really only trying to get my thinking firmed up.

    Hope I didn’t hurt anyone in the process of asking.



  7. Julie Bogart says:

    Elaine, I loved the honesty of your original comment! No worries here. We’re all about the “true truth” and getting to it.

    You know what? I didn’t major in English because I couldn’t bear to dissect books and stories that I loved (or being made to read ones I didn’t want to read). I did have one British lit class in college that I found really interesting. But i was glad it wasn’t my primary subject matter.

    As an adult, I’ve come to really value the ability to see the layers in writing. I think primarily it matters to me as a writer (even more than a reader). The purpose in seeing symbolism etc. is that it gives you a deeper sense of the message and beauty of the stories themselves. And it’s a bit like a treasure hunt – you have the joy of discovery of those intentional bits embedded in the writing. That gives me such a high now!

    Anyone can learn to see the layers. It just takes a guide. Once you “speak that language,” you find yourself seeing things intuitively. It’s a bit like learning to appreciate art or playing piano. As you uncover the techniques that writers use to convey imagery, symbols, codes and beauty of language, you find yourself noticing them in the writing yourself. I find it easiest to start with poetry, then short stories and finally plays and novels.

    If you feel unconfident, you can read along in one of the lit discussion groups to learn how to do it.

    However, one caveat. it is absolutely not necessary to life and vitality to read literature on this level. Most kids are required to do it in one class in college. That’s it. Beyond that, the skill isn’t essential to being a successful adult. Just an enriched one. 🙂

    Hope that helps!


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  10. […] then, almost serendipitously, Julie at Bravewriter blogged about the classics in a way that hit some of my concerns, albeit from a different angle and for a different age group. […]