It’s a Classic–So What?

When I was little, my mom would suggest a particular food and say “Have some. It’s good for you.” Shockingly enough, this was not the best way to increase my culinary palette. (What would have worked? “Broccoli–they’re tiny trees you can eat!”) Bookshelvers Anonymous makes the point that this kind of argument doesn’t work for literature, either:

“When kids come into my store for classics, it’s because a teacher has given them a reading list. They’re being forced to read books that are presented to them as “classic,” which probably brings up the same caustic definition in their minds that I presented at the very beginning of this post. They don’t want to read these boring old books where everyone talks funny! And by “kids,” I mean everyone from elementary-schoolers to grad students.”

This brings up all kinds of issues about what books kids should be reading in school and is it possible to enjoy homework, anyway? Bookshelver suggests a certain level of autonomy for students:

“The books I loved most as a kid were the ones I found myself – the classic Beauty and the Beast, the full and unabridged Treasure Island, And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I picked them, not teachers or professors. Even if schools aren’t willing to give kids full autonomy, partial autonomy is still possible. Some schools, instead of giving kids a list of ten books they must read, instead give the kids a list of thirty and tell them to pick ten. The kids pick things that interest them, the teachers still get to feed their students classics, and who knows? Maybe the kids will even start swapping books with fellow classmates, because what’s more contagious than a good book (just ask Harry Potter and Hunger Games)?”

My middle school did something similar. In 7th and 8th grade, part of our curriculum allowed us to choose books from a fairly extensive list, and create projects/write essays in response to our individual readings. As a result, I picked up A Tale of Two Cities, Jane Eyre, and Of Mice and Men, all of which I loved.

But if I hadn’t loved these books, that would have been okay, too. You don’t have to read or love a book just because it’s a classic. I tried Anna Karenina and didn’t get much out of it; I can’t stand Hemingway; I spent part of my 11th grade English final arguing that Willy Loman was a jerk, so Death of a Salesman was a theatrical failure. Some classics just won’t work for you–just like any other genre. It’s good to be exposed to books you might not pick up otherwise, and having a good teacher guide you through the text can be a huge help, but extolling the classics just because they’re “classic” is useless.

I subscribe to a “no book guilt” policy. If I don’t enjoy something–whether it’s a YA novel, a classic, or a volume of poetry–I can stop reading. There are way too many good books out there to waste time on ones that just aren’t working for you.

(image: Cambridge, King’s College Library by Cornell University Library)

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