When to Read

Rarely have I had an English class that I enjoyed. I liked the teachers, I liked many of the classmates and some of the activities and assignments, but I did not enjoy the class. This is perhaps because there was one assigned book (Shakespeare aside) that I truly enjoyed reading (and another two that I got to choose from a lengthy list). In part this could be the contrarian in me, but I see two larger systemic reasons.

The first is that I don’t like structurally analyzing literature. I’m sure that it has value and it is good to understand what a climax is, but I also steadfastly maintain that literature broken down into constituent parts loses something. Literature is story telling and is about drawing the audience in, so while breaking the story down some ways can help understand it better, other divisions end up leaving it empty. I want to experience my literature. In just one example, one of the reasons that I love 1984 as much as I do is that I have a visceral reaction to the story each and every time I read it. Few other books do that for me.

The second is a larger issue with teaching classic literature in high schools at all. While I do believe that there are great books, whether canonical or not, that everyone ought to read, I am becoming more and more convinced that high school is the wrong time to read them. However hard my teachers tried there were certain messages and certain elements in the books we read that I was only capable of understanding or absorbing in a shallow way. For some books that is still the case, and for others I will never really be ready (though accepting this as a basic truth actually helps make me able to read those books anyway). My point is that now, in my third year of graduate school (which is to say my fourth year out of college), I am realizing that I have more of an affinity for absorbing classic literature than I did ten years ago. Perhaps, then, English programs in high school would be better served finding creative ways to get children to read books of any stripe and let classic literature stand upon its own merit in the years to come rather than forcing people to read those books at a young age and thereby leave a bitter taste in their mouths.

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