Do Great Books Grow Old? Or Do We Just Forget How To Read Them?

A few days ago, the BookBub blog posted an article entitled “12 Books We Should Stop Making High Schoolers Read”, which you can find here:

On the one hand, I’m sympathetic to this list, since I teach high school students—that is, high school students who suddenly find themselves first-year college students at a small regional university in Oklahoma. They haven’t magically transformed from twelfth grade to year one of college; they’re still the same students who (largely) don’t like to read or write, and (mostly) have avoided reading as much as possible. When ordering books for a prospective class, I always think, “oh, can they really read book X? Isn’t it too hard? Will they stick with it? Can I possibly make them see the big ideas here? Shouldn’t I try something easier or more modern?” So on the face of it, this list is an honest admission that students hate reading, so why not at least try to meet them on their own terms? What’s wrong with switching out Moby Dick with The Martian? (though I’ve got to think alliteration had something to do with this switcheroo, since they have almost zero in common). If high school students bitch about reading A Tale of Two Cities, why not substitute I am Malala, a non-fiction book by a brave woman who is admittedly not a writer and had a professional writer help her along (which doesn’t exactly compare to Dickens, one of our greatest writers of novels). But hey, if it gets students reading, why the hell not? Reading is reading, and all reading is good. 

My problem with this list—and dozens of lists like it—is the basic philosophy of this list. It’s a philosophy of defeat. And behind this philosophy of defeat are teachers who are hiding something. All of us have blind spots in our reading, and teachers are no exception. Even an English degree doesn’t prepare you for all the books you’ll encounter in the standard curriculum. What it does—or should do—is provide enough context and grounding to understand how to approach any novel. So if you have to teach The Scarlet Letter but have never read it, you know where Hawthorne fits into the tapestry of American literature and can read with this context in mind. But too many students are just racing through their degrees, or are too distracted by work and bills to really pay attention. Some of them end up teaching without really knowing how to do it: that is, they don’t know what to say about Beowulf or The Canterbury Tales and dread these tomes even more than the students. In a relationship of fear, what good can come out of education?

Many of my own high school teachers had this kind of relationship with literature: they taught Shakespeare for the plot and skimmed over questions about language that they couldn’t answer. Initially, literature seemed all surface to me: an entire play just to say that “young people in lust do stupid things.” But even then, I latched onto the character of Mercutio who seemed so clever, dark, and irreverent. What was his story? When I watched the 60’s film I got him a bit more, and wondered why he wasn’t the main character of the play. But the more I read and re-read Romeo and Juliet, I understood: he was the cynical youth, the one who rejects everything and creates nothing, and who can never really grow up. A dark Peter Pan, if you will. Juliet—who every teacher glossed over as a “silly little girl—is the wise one; she teaches Romeo stop speaking love from a book and actually write poetry—as she does (or Shakespeare does, that is). For example, look at this clever speech she makes to her Nurse, when she learns that something has happened to Romeo:

Hath Romeo slain himself? Say though but “Ay,”
And that bare vowel “I” shall poison more
Than the death-darting eye of cockratrice.
I am not I, if there by such an “Ay,”
Or those eyes shut, that makes thee answer “Ay.”
If he be slain, say “Ay,” or if not, “No.”
Brief sounds determine of my weal or woe (Act 3, scene 2).

This speech is so clever and inventive and like a freestyle rap (almost). What kid wouldn’t dig this once it was explained to him/her how Juliet is exploiting every possible meaning and sound of the vowel “I”? She claims that if the Nurse says “ay” (that Romeo has killed himself) then “I,” or she, will no longer exist—an “ay” killing an “I.” And this “ay” will kill those “eyes” that she sees in her dreams and longs to behold again. Only at the end does she invoke another sound, the harsh, final “no” that is echoed in the final line’s “woe.” Note how clever Shakespeare is in matching sounds to meaning, so that even if we don’t completely get a passage, we “hear” it correctly. Read it aloud and even try to sing it: it moves, it flows, it sings, it dips, it rises. It’s music that anyone would respond to as long as they are taught to hear it first. For too many students, it just lies flat on the page, marks on a used textbook scored with underlines by scores of similarly clueless students.

Nothing is more modern than Shakespeare’s language and ideas. Nothing is more shocking than Jane Austen’s ideas about love and marriage (especially when you see what else was being written at the time). Nothing is more visceral than Beowulf’s fight with Grendel—and his later defeat at the hands of a dragon. Tolkein certainly thought so, which is why he borrowed most of it to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, books which are considered “modern” and “accessible” to even 7th graders. So what gives? How can something that inspires genius be a forgotten, dusty heirloom thrown in the corner? Why are we so quick to throw these books into the great recycling bin in the sky when they’ve survived countless generations and are deemed relevant by people older and wiser than we are?

The words “overrated” and “outdated” are the first thing reluctant readers and dismayed teachers hurl at classic texts. It becomes a badge of pride, as if they’re outing the work for masquerading as literature for so long. In truth it’s a defense mechanism, allowing everyone to escape the intellectual challenge of tackling a rich and difficult text. How strange that in our society that constantly chides parents for babying their kids, we allow them carte blanche to avoid our intellectual culture at every turn. The past isn’t worth learning, since it’s past—over—done with, we seem to tell them. Find something that speaks to you now, at this moment. New is better. New is more important. New speaks to you. Old speaks to people dead and gone, people who were dumber and (probably) whiter than you who didn’t know any better. Why perpetuate their ideas?

If that was true, I would completely agree: we have surpassed many a racist and ignorant idea, and few of us would realistically want to go backwards. But that’s just it: great literature is the works that didn’t express those ideas, that didn’t just kowtow to the status quo and perpetuate a legacy of mindless oppression. Even works that reflect a ‘darker’ time are more thoughtful about it and allow us to see ourselves in that time and place. If we only read more “enlightened” works, we see nothing but ourselves patting each other on the back. And of course, our noble 21st century ideas will quickly become dated too, and your children and their children will be embarrassed that we ever read or wrote them. Our only salvation as a culture is looking to the books that survived hundreds or even thousands of years to keep speaking to us in a language that survives time and translation.
But how could they do this? How could anyone imagine how we would feel and think hundreds of years after everyone they knew had died?

The mystery lies between the covers, in the pages of the great authors who wrote even more than they knew. A great book is more than the sum of its parts. It’s more than an author, or a time, or a place. It’s a unique amalgam of vision and talent along with the zeitgeist of a particular moment. Shakespeare was born at the right time and saw the right places and found himself in the right city to become the greatest English playwright (ooh—“greatest” is an unfashionable word these days, but there it is). If we simply replace Macbeth with some YA novel about war and guilty conscience, we’re ignoring the role that history plays in our lives. Shakespeare was unique, and may never exist again. That’s not to say that we have to live and breathe only Shakespeare, but we do owe it to ourselves to understand why he came into being, and what he left for us. Books are gifts left to an undeserving population, and instead of asking for a refund, perhaps we should accept it humbly and with gratitude?

To round out this response, I should mention what everyone already knows but easily forgets: books don’t teach themselves. You have to really think about a book and the world surrounding the book to make it live and breathe for your students. This is true even of a book written today. You can’t plop down Eleanor and Park or Romeo and Juliet and expect everyone to simply “get it.” Sure, some students will rise to the challenge or will simply find themselves in the work. For most, however, it’s work—assigned work and homework at that. You have to counterbalance that with knowledge and passion. The works have to live again, which is the easiest thing in the world for works that have never died. All you have to do is kiss it into existence like Sleeping Beauty. Its eyes will open and its lips will speak…especially if you make students aware that literature is not just plot or characters, but language. Start with the language: that’s where the true adventure begins.

In short, reading is reading, and books are books. You shouldn’t replace one book with another or only read one artificial construction of literature over another. Read old books and new books. Read graphic novels and epic poetry. They’re all part of the same family and they all speak to one another. However, it would be foolish—almost criminal, in fact—to pretend that books that have survived hundreds of years don’t have more to say (and more to teach) than books that haven’t survived this process of winnowing down. But it’s like anything else in life: you have to learn how to appreciate it. Do people come out of the womb knowing that wine tastes good or that raw fish is delicious? No, we have to learn, and that’s not a process of elitism or cultural indoctrination. Education, of all disciplines, should support the idea of needing to start at the beginning and work your way forward. Maybe you don’t start with Shakespeare, but just because he’s difficult doesn’t mean you remove him from the equation. The books didn’t dry up for a reason: they’re bread crumbs leading back to a great mystery, and too many of us are kicking the crumbs into the thickets, pretending they never existed. That’s the surest way to get lost in the woods of self-discovery at the most precarious time of existence.

Teenagers need all the help they can get, and luckily for them, they have dozens of writers willing to guide them through the ‘dark forest’ of the imagination. Imagine how much more difficult it was for Shakespeare, or Homer, or Sappho to find themselves without so much great literature at their fingertips? Lucky for us, we don’t have to. We just have to open the books, and with the help of a good teacher or two, we’re on our way. Where? Wherever we like, since books show us the way, but never really tell us which way to go. But here’s a secret: the oldest books promise us the longest and most exciting adventures. Don’t believe me? Start reading one of the books from the BookBub list with an open mind and start exploring (or better yet, read both books—the originals on the list and the substitutes; why shortchange yourself?). 


  1. "The words “overrated” and “outdated” are the first thing reluctant readers and dismayed teachers hurl at classic texts. It becomes a badge of pride, as if they’re outing the work for masquerading as literature for so long. In truth it’s a defense mechanism, allowing everyone to escape the intellectual challenge of tackling a rich and difficult text."

    I was outraged at the suggested "substitutes" and hope the list is never adopted by schools. What? Do we undervalue teenagers so much that we think they aren't up to intellectual challenge at all? The message of "just toss the old books into the garbage bin of history" would deprive us of rich cultural heritage that had survived the test of time. It must not happen.

  2. To be fair, some of the substitutes are great books in their own right: I've read and taught The Martian and it's an amazing book. But it doesn't really compare to Moby Dick thematically or in its richness of character or metaphor. It's apples and oranges. The same goes for Beowulf and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Again, a great book, but the only connection is that both take place in "fantastic new worlds." Please. Beowulf is about the struggle between two ways of life, and how the poet (or his world) tries to incorporate old ideas and values into the Christian mindset. It's so powerful and multi-layered and Douglas Adams isn't writing the same kind of book, to say nothing of the fact that one is a novel and one is an epic poem!

    Our culture seems literature as interchangeable as old technology; we upgrade our phones, so why not our literature? They can't see that the technology metaphor doesn't work in every situation or for every kind of experience in life.


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