When I think back to high school, I wasn’t the biggest reader. I read, but I didn’t read a lot. I hate to say it, but I was obsessed with finding a boyfriend and having friends — at least until I had an argument with my main group of friends who were doing something I disagreed with, and then I was focusing on music. I wasn’t a person who really enjoyed high school, which is sad because I feel like I could’ve done better. Now, nearly 20 years later, I wish I could have a do over and actually focus on my studies more and not be so obsessed with things that weren’t overly important.
Anyway, this post isn’t about my social life and hating high school, but about reading the classics in high school. Honestly, I can’t remember reading a lot of classics – or reading a lot of books at all. I remember reading a lot out of those giant collections of classics; books that had poetry and short stories and the like but gave you a backache when you tried to read anything in it. I didn’t understand the poetry, I didn’t understand the Shakespeare, and I got bored with the classics.
The only classic I remember actually reading (besides some Shakespeare and The Outsiders) was The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, and even with that, I never actually read it. I got bored within the first 5 pages and couldn’t get past his descriptions and I instead wrote my paper by winging it and failed miserably. So I don’t really have fond memories of reading in high school. After high school I read more, though not as much as I do now, but even with the amount I was reading it interested me in reading more in university and I signed up for so many courses that had me reading the classics (though I was scared away by any course that had a classic that was overly long).
I had always read, whether it be the The Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High of my teens; or attempting to read Stephen King or Danielle Steele, the books my mom enjoyed; or classic chick lit by Sophie Kinsella or Emily Giffin, the books I enjoyed after university. I loved reading in university but even that didn’t make me want to read more than I already did.
Now, 20 years later, I really enjoy reading the classics and I have so many on my shelf that I’m legitimately looking forward to reading, but I wonder if I hadn’t been a voracious reader before this (my reading kickstarted by reading Twilight back in 2008 – don’t judge) would I be interested in reading at all?
I think back to high school and how I didn’t want to read. I would fall asleep reading a text book and couldn’t get through a few pages of a book without getting bored. I rejoiced when another English teacher showed us the movie for Lord of the Flies rather than having us read the book. It makes me wonder if reading the classics in high school is detrimental to reading later in life. I know of some teenagers who are amazing readers, who already read the classics (one reason I love Lucy the Reader so much) but not all teens are like this. Reading the classics is scary! It’s reading in a voice that is very much unlike our own and written about a time a hundred years or so before ours.
When I think about the themes of some of the classics I read 15-20 years ago, I am reminded of Ethan Frome, a book by Edith Wharton that I recently finished. The story deals with very adult themes and maybe I was a really naive and ignorant teenager and young adult, but I can guarantee I would have no idea what that book was even about had I read it in high school or university. Do we need to experience life more before attempting the classics? Can we just dive into them without knowing about themes of adulthood?
More importantly, why do we continue to have many of the same classics in the high school curriculum now that we had 20 years ago (or longer), when there are so many actual young adult books available to teach teenagers about themes relevant to what they’re actually going through in high school? Is it just laziness on the teacher’s part?
After thinking all these thoughts, my mind then wandered over to think about The Grapes of Wrath again, the book that I couldn’t get into at all 20 years ago. When I think about it now, I realize that this is the book I’m most excited about reading when it comes to my classics reading. Now, reading its synopsis, I really want to read the story! I loved Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and have loved many of the classics I’ve been reading during this latter part of the year, and now I feel like I’m ready to read the book that may have turned me off of reading, had I not already found a bit of the joy of reading in my youth.
I bought this gorgeous centennial edition of the book and it’s just so gorgeous and it sounds so so great. In case you’re not sure what the story is about, here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:
John Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of the Great Depression follows the western movement of one family & a nation in search of work & human dignity. Perhaps the most American of American classics. The novel focuses on the Joads, a poor family of sharecroppers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, & changes in financial & agricultural industries. Due to their nearly hopeless situation, & in part because they were trapped in the Dust Bowl, the Joads set out for California. Along with thousands of other “Okies”, they sought jobs, land, dignity & a future. When preparing to write the novel, Steinbeck wrote: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this [the Great Depression & its effects].” The book won Steinbeck a large following among the working class, perhaps due to the book’s sympathy to the workers’ movement & its accessible prose style.
The Grapes of Wrath is frequently read in American high school & college literature classes. A celebrated Hollywood film version, starring Henry Fonda & directed by John Ford, was made in 1940.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me and maybe I really wasn’t a reader like other kids in high school, and other times I still think that the curriculum should be changing to include more books written specifically for young adults and maybe leaving these classics for when teenagers choose to specialize come university. But even still, I have that little niggling in the back of my head that makes me want to go back and just redo high school without thinking that boys and friends were the most important thing ever. Maybe had I gone that route, I would’ve been a voracious reader in the years between high school and discovering Twilight in 2008. At any rate, I’m glad that now, in my 30s, I’m discovering the joy of reading the classics and coming into my own when it comes to reading, finding the styles I like and being my own reading person rather than following what everyone else is reading.
What do you think when it comes to reading the classics in high school? Were you a fan of them then, or did you discover that you appreciated them more later in life? Do you agree that more current young adult books should be relevant in high school reading? I’d love to hear your thoughts!