I remember very little of what I read in my high school English classes. Some titles have stuck: Jude the Obscure, 1984, Émile Zola’s Germinal, the requisite profusion of Shakespeare. But given four years in a class that was supposedly my favorite, those are some terrible statistics. Granted, a lot of that is probably due to my own recreational efforts to handicap my short-term memory (note to potential employers: this was a very long time ago). But it’s also because so little of the assigned reading resonated with me on any level at all—and I know this because so much of what I read outside of school reached me, changed me, and has stayed with me at an almost cellular level.
Over at Bookforum, Natasha Vargas-Cooper makes a case for Why We Should Stop Teaching Novels to High School Students. I agree with her premise: much of the high school canon is made up of work that is, arguably, classic and maybe even great, but not necessarily accessible to teenagers:
Reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald now, on the treacherous precipice of thirty, I can kind of relate to the themes of adult loss, waning youth, disintegrating plans buried under too many compromises. But teenagers? I’m agog that these novels show up on high schoolers’ reading list. I think about how hungry I was a teenager, starving for stimuli. It couldn’t be just anything. It had to feel vital and urgent, to be something that could put words to all the new and bewildering feelings that wriggled through my body each day. Trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.
There are overarching themes and then there are overarching themes. I do think it’s wise to make high schoolers aware that there is such a thing as the human condition, and that good literature encompasses emotions and relationships accessible to people the world over. But there’s a lot of good literature, and a lot of human conditions, available to teach. I mean—Death in Venice, really? Yes it’s a beautiful mediation on longing and the fleeting quality of youth and beauty, but please find me one 16-year-old in the world who can truly internalize that. 16-year-olds are immortal. You can tell them otherwise, but if you want to teach them something about life and literature at the same time, the vehicle needs to be just a little more responsive. And though Shakespeare has plenty to teach about universality, so much energy goes into untangling the language that the moment when he clicks has more to do with understanding what he was saying in the first place. Even I am not philistine enough to say we should ditch Shakespeare, but—so much Shakespeare, every year?
Vargas-Cooper recommends getting rid of the novel in English classes entirely, and replacing it with nonfiction. And she has a great list of suggestions; I think most them would make excellent additions to the curriculum (although good luck getting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas past the school board). I’m certainly on record here and elsewhere as saying that every 10th-grader should read Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, if only for “On Self Respect” and “On Keeping a Journal.”
But I don’t agree that the novel needs to be phased out of the classroom. Nor do I think it’s right to pin the problem on economic factors—I went to the kind of “tony private school” she holds up as a counter-example, and I can promise you, curriculum rot was just as prevalent there. I do think the fiction choices need to be rebooted, however, and I’m not talking about YA—kids can find that on their own. Nor do I have any answers at my fingertips, though I don’t see anything wrong with taking a few pages out of basic undergrad college syllabi and just changing up the lesson plans a bit. I don’t think good serious books for teenagers are that hard to find.
But here’s what does concern me: All those books that did rock my world when I was in high school were either liberated from the family shelves or passed along by friends, or both in that order. We had cooler older brothers and sisters who handed us their dogeared Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks, or piles of Beat novels in a box in the basement, or someone’s mom let slip that The Golden Notebook was “a really, really important book,” and we all tried our best to get through it junior year. I found a lot of memorable reads because I was looking for dirty parts—Fear of Flying, The Second Sex, and Portnoy’s Complaint come to mind. But there were plenty I stuck with even though they turned out not to have anything salacious to them—I’m not sure why I was convinced Iris Murdoch wrote racy books, but I made it through at least three before I figured out I wasn’t going to hit pay dirt, and liked them anyway.
So where are the bookshelves? I know many of us still have them, and our children and teenagers can still pluck something that looks promising (or dirty). But every year I imagine there will be fewer of those family shelves. Not that I’m anti e-book by any stretch, but there needs to be some kind of sharing mechanism that’s smaller than Goodreads but more browsable than a password-protected e-reader. Whoever ends up inventing the electronic equivalent of the living room bookcase, accessible to the entire family and shareable without a history—because no budding proto-feminist is going to download her big sister’s copy of The Vagina Monologues if everyone can see—gets my vote as the savior of tomorrow’s teenage readers.
That, and some thoughtful choices in schools. Thankfully the Common Core Standards don’t mandate the reading curriculum, and there’s still some room for creativity on the part of English teachers and librarians everywhere. A good mix of novels, nonfiction, and poetry that speak to kids and challenge them and give them an idea of what good writing really is—that’s not too much to ask. No offense to my man Thomas Hardy, but some work is better off discovered voluntarily, and a little later down the line.
(Image is of a classroom in Mechanic Arts High School c. 1890s, courtesy of Boston Public Library’s Flickr photostream.)