I’m not going to discuss what makes a work of literature a classic. That’s a complicated, consuming question. What I want to address is when one should read the classics. Simply put, a literary classic is a text that is layered; one that can be read multiple times and still yield truths and ideas concerning the wider world in which we live. Classics may deal directly with the lives of fictional human characters, but they deal with them in the continuously moving, transforming stream of history, society, and culture. The society and culture we live in today may be and is vastly different from that of a character living in nineteenth-century Britain or France in Pride and Prejudice or Madame Bovary, but at the same time, the differences are quiet often merely superficial. So many of the problems faced by characters in literature two hundred years ago confront characters in today’s fiction also. And we too, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, have to come to terms with these same issues in our own lives.
But now to the reason for this post. I have been reading the classics since I was in elementary school. I distinctly remember reading The Picture of Dorian Gray when I was in seventh grade. How absurd is that? Really, should a twelve-year-old be reading this novel? Even in high school, the numerous classics I read, along with countless other students before and after me, are not even remotely right for students ages twelve to eighteen. Let me be clear: I am not concerned with the moral value of the classics, but with their intellectual level. Unless a high school teacher has a PhD in literature, few, if any, will have the wealth of knowledge necessary to thoroughly explicate classics like Dorian Gray, Hamlet, Leaves of Grass, or The Scarlet Letter. And don’t get me started on the unfortunate lack of time in a high school class to even get through a text and feel like you’ve properly taught or learned it in any way.
My point is that what the establishment has called the literary canon is, for the most part, wasted on our students. Students yesterday, today, and tomorrow do not want to read the classics, let alone read at all, especially now in the digital age. As the years pass fewer and fewer students are interested in learning at all. And one of the major reasons why they don’t want to read a classic is because they can’t relate to them. Another reason is because they simply don’t understand them, no matter how well their instructor teaches them. Many, nay even most, of the classics are, in short, above their teenage mental and emotional comprehension. I say this with all due respect, knowing full well looking back twenty-odd years with a mature mind that many of the classics I read in high school didn’t hold my interest, went over my head, and so were truly undiscovered and underrated. I do not think the majority of the literary canon should be given to high school students to read. They should only be given to university students who are English or comp lit majors.
I can tell you that if I had read a number of the classics in high school that I have read within the last decade I would not have understood a word of them. I truly loved Anna Karenina a few years ago when I read it for the first time; if I had read it in high school would I have understood the philosophical questions raised by it? I think not. Would I have fallen in love with Anna and connected with her the way I did? Probably so, since I connected with Edna, a character like her, in The Awakening. Yet I did not relate to Madame Bovary, another woman akin to them.
Barring the question of the intellectual level of these books and how one can best get students to grasp the depths of these works, the major issue is getting students to read and respond to books that they can relate to, thus to characters they can find a kinship with. I think that most of the classics students have been reading for the last fifty years should be excised from every school’s English curriculum. Not because I do not believe in these texts but because I know from my own experience as a student, and from teaching first- and second-year college students, that they are not interested in these books and cannot understand the gravity of the deep questions concerning human existence they ask that most students do not give thought to for even a moment. Why should they, really? They are not adults yet, nor should they have to be. Their time spent in college is where they should begin to become acquainted with adulthood and the ensuing responsibilities of maturity.
To replace these classics one should teach high school students the best of the young adult fiction that has been hitting the physical and virtual bookshelves for the last two decades. We must keep the books our students read as current as possible, but I firmly believe in keeping the classics that revolve around young adult characters. I would not, however dated some of these books may be, throw out The Catcher in the Rye (though I read it at fourteen and didn’t like it but my sister read it at seventeen and did; a firsthand example of the question this post is ultimately concerned with: At what age should certain books be read to be clearly understood?), Lord of the Flies, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Ender’s Game, A Separate Peace, and To Kill a Mockingbird, for example.
I love literature. I am a snob and read mostly the classics, but they are not for everyone, whether you are sixteen or sixty. Much of this has to do with who you are as a person, you either have the interest in them or you don’t. My concern is with when one should read the classics, if one chooses to do so, not that one actually do so. Naturally, I think everyone should read a number of the classics because they are beneficial to us as human beings, as thought-provoking and moving studies of the human condition and humankind’s place in the world, in the continuously flowing stream of the breath of life renewing itself in and out of every moment of creation and decay, death and renewal. To get the most out of a literary classic, I think one should read it in adulthood, past the age of twenty-five, even thirty for that matter, thereby enriching one’s life and furthering one’s maturity and understanding of oneself, others, and the world.