Each year, every English student is forced to read a series of so-called “classics.” Works like The Scarlet Letter, The Odyssey, The Epic of Gilgamesh and a myriad of Shakespearean plays are among the most beloved by English teachers. The problem? Kids hate them. English teachers need to be more open to teaching new books.
One of the problems with older books is that they tend to be very plodding and sequential. I think that contemporary authors do a much better job of creating an atmosphere and writing descriptively. I like authors that take time to stop and write about the roses, literarily speaking. Updike, Vonnegut, Doctorow, Eggers, and Rushdie are some of the most influential authors of the 20th and 21st centuries, but a lot of you have never heard of them. That’s because even though we’re in the 21st century, we’re mostly being taught 18th century books.
I think one would be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who can justify the books they teach as more classic than other books. Teachers often name ‘timelessness’ as a factor. It can be argued that classic books address important topics like sexuality and loss, but so do a lot of other works. It would be difficult to walk into any bookstore and pick out a book without those themes in them.
I think the world of English teachers can sometimes be a bit of an echo chamber. Often, English teachers are required to teach certain books, like the works of Shakespeare.
When everyone has to teach the same books year after year, I worry that it becomes too easy for a teacher to put blinders on and ignore other, better books.
A lot of books become classics at first because they are sensational for their time. The Scarlet Letter was one such book. Books that challenge ideas become popular, but as literature evolves they are still held in high regard even though modern authors have moved on to better literary styles and more topical subjects.
There is a tendency to judge a book “for its time.” I think books that are valuable because of their historical significance should be taught in history class, rather than in English. I think it’s important not only to sing the praises of a book in English class, but also to be aware of and discuss its shortcomings.
There are a lot of great contemporary novels that are not only more relatable to modern high school students but also hold up as excellent works of literature.
–By Francis Beroset