Saturday, July 11, 2015

My Complicated Relationship with Classic Literature

Everyone is all abuzz about Go Set a Watchman, the new title from Harper Lee that releases shortly. Literally everyone. Or so it seems. (If you're into it, I hear the Guardian's interactive first chapter, with voice narration available by Reese Witherspoon, is very good. I don't know as I don't plan to watch/read/consume.)

It's interesting to me to watch this new trend in literature, and it comes from an overall trend in society I think. The trend is the Celebrity Author Pedestalling. I can hardly blame JK Rowling for publishing under a pseudonym (this article is worth a read about the field of forensic linguistics, though I understand the original tip came from a blabby wife of an exec at the agency or elsewhere in JKRow's world.) The fuss about Harper Lee is ... confusing.

First, a confession. Due to an odd set of circumstances in my childhood (we moved twice during my high school years so I attended 3 schools in 4 years) I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. I've also never read Moby Dick. Uncle Tom's Cabin. Beowulf. The Great Gadsby. Old Man and the Sea. Of Mice and Men. Lord of the Flies. The Grapes of Wrath. I don't really regret these absences, though I have The Great Gadsby on a bookshelf. Maybe one day it will out-compete my massive to-be-read pile. I doubt it.

I have, however, read and dissected Macbeth at least 3 times in High School and once or twice in college. I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, which almost killed me, but then was thrilled to find it as an option on the AP English exam that year or the next. I earned a 4 on that exam. (out of 5, which got me out of first year English requirements and composition classes in college.) I've read Dr. Faustus, Madame Bovary, and The Inferno. I've read Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Ibsen, Camus (in English and in French.) I hated with a pure unadulterated passion Kafka's Metamorphosis. Don't remember ever hating a book so much.

The subject of teaching kids classic lit comes up often in the media. (Here's one very interesting article about it, featuring a number of quotes from children and parents that are eye-opening.)

So we're back to the buzz about this new book, which has it's own odd backstory, almost like a book itself (this post isn't meant to address any of that odd backstory.) But I'm so puzzled by the elevation of this book as the One Thing That Is Awesome About Literature in 2015. There are *so* many good books that came out in 2015 or are due to. So much good stuff last year and the year before. So many books to anticipate. Why all the extreme focus on this one author, this one book? I know there's some element of joy of hearing from an author who didn't publish much, but I fear when we laser-focus on one author, we risk further alienating kids from books because they look at something like this and think, meh. Maybe it'll be assigned reading this year in my son's Honors 9th grade English class. I just asked him about his opinion of To Kill A Mockingbird (which he read within the last year) and he answered, "Meh."

When we've got so much great fiction coming out, so many great authors, I fear a focus on one title by one author will take away the emphasis on these other great titles, pull from the limited time we all have these days, pull emphasis from these other authors writing great works. It's not a rising-tide-raises-all-ships kind of situation, I don't think, when one author's singular work gets this kind of media attention/spectacle. It's not the same as the Harry Potter Phenomenon, best explained as the fact that when kids (and adults) finished reading HP, they moved on to other books. (Here's a great Leaky Cauldron article about that. I searched and read several other articles, but I find the fansite the best for this particular bit of HP-related trivia.)

I've sort of mushed the idea now that I've mentioned Harry Potter, but it brings up a point that helps me finalize this post -- when there are books like Harry Potter out there which can spark imagination and literally get millions upon millions of people to read, why do we need to over-emphasize just one title, just one book, just one author who wrote this book a very long time ago? And when it comes to literature classes and teaching English to kids, why aren't we using contemporary fiction more? I'm sure I'll have more observations as my son gets into his 9th grade English class, but for now, I'm left scratching my head at the idolatry and love for one book, when there are so very many books. It's like falling passionately in love with one poppy in a field with hundreds of thousands of them.

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