Unsucking the classics

Here’s a post by Sherwood Smith at Book View Cafe: Unsucking the Classics. I’m sure you can immediately guess what this post is about:

I got into yet another of those conversations about how Books Were Ruined By School. Various classics got mentioned, to universal groans or sick faces. There’s always a certain comfort in solidarity-suffering. So you had to read Of Mice and Men four times in four years? So did I, and hated it even more each time!

Yeah, for me that was Madame Bovary. It only got assigned twice, but I’m sorry I was dutiful enough to actually read it twice. Uuuuugh.

For some of us, it was the way the book was taught (there are very few books that hold up when there are tests on the chapters, especially multiple choice questions!) but most often, when I ask a few questions, it turns out that the teacher did the best they could, but couldn’t get around the fact that the book should have waited until the reader was ready for it.

I don’t think it really matters how the book is taught. Or I suppose bad teaching can make a bad experience worse. But I don’t think there is anything in the world that can make a kid enjoy a book that a) he or she is not ready for; and/or that b) is just not the sort of book that student would ever be able to stand no matter when it was presented.

The lack of choice is thus an inextricable part of the problem when it comes to taking literature classes. There is no point in life at which everyone hit with the assignment is going to enjoy Madame Bovary. It’s not a question of being ready for it. It’s a question of enjoying a book that is about a passive, ennui-ridden protagonist surrounded by awful people.

Sherwood Smith asserts that it’s a terrible disservice to Jane Austen to make teenagers read her books. This is no doubt true, though I wish someone had assigned Austen to me instead of Madame Bovary; but I think you could say the same about any classics.

She also says, “Shakespeare should be first experienced on stage,” and THAT IS SO TRUE. I could not believe how stupid “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” seemed when I read it, or how much I loved it when I saw it on the stage the next day. (I read it because I was going to go see it and wanted a preview.) Lit teachers really, truly ought never to assign the plays to be read; these days you can get a DVD of any play, surely. Get one of those and show it. That would be so much better.

And start with a comedy, for heaven’s sake. Not a tragedy. Or show one of each if you must, but do you REALIZE you are teaching students that ALL CLASSICS ARE AWFUL TRAGEDIES when you design your curricula? That was sure the basic lesson *I* learned in lit classes, which is why I avoided classics most of my life and still have a huge disinclination to try anything that could remotely be called a classic.

Sherwood Smith adds, “At this point in my life, it’s probably safe to say I’ll never enjoy a depressing story about despicable people…” Yeah, that. If lit teachers stopped assuming that depressing = deep and acting as though enjoying reading about despicable people shows you have elevated taste, I imagine far more students would actually enjoy lit classes.

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8 thoughts on “Unsucking the classics”

  1. My daughter went to study English because she loved Jane Austen at fourteen. (And then went on to switch from literature to linguistics, and from English to Italian.)

  2. Even better than seeing a Shakespeare play: put on a Shakespeare play! We did Twelfth Night in the fourth year of high school. (I’m not an actor but I managed to get assigned to props and lighting)

  3. My intro to Shakespeare was Much Ado About Nothing; we read it in middle school and then watched the Branagh movie. I enjoyed reading it, but it was sooo much funnier after seeing the movie! The delivery just makes a huge difference to how you understand the dialogue. After that, re-reading it in high school was actually pleasurable.

    I can’t say I had a similar experience with classics. I think I got lucky with my English teachers and the books they chose to assign us. I only ever spark-noted one book, and that was at the end of senior year–Heart of Darkness. I couldn’t stand it.

  4. Or at least audio performances – I used to have Tempest with Michael and Vanessa Redgrave on tape – but surely a school can get DVDs of performances. ANYTHING is better than reading plays. IMO. I suppose some people can read them cold, but I bounced off plays hard.

  5. I did have one case where I initially enjoyed a book, but the teacher killed it with over-analysis, but mostly it was the ugh, depressing issue. We did a unit of Anna Karenina, The Awakening, and Madame Bovary – a trio of suicidal adulteresses, just what I wanted! I sort of wondered if that teacher was working through some issues.

  6. Sarah, ha! I have to wonder the same thing. Now *that* would have made an interesting paper topic: an analysis of papers assigned by social experiences of the teachers assigning them . . . I bet that kind of paper would nudge teachers toward happier books for a change.

  7. How is it that all of you were assigned comedies in school? All I ever got was the tragedies. I don’t remember EVER having a comedy assigned — that is so unfair! I only started watching them after my friend dragged me off to see Midsummer Night’s Dream.

    If forced to participate in putting on a play, I too would strive to be assigned to props instead.

  8. Hah, we got tragedies too: Romeo & Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet. 3:1 tragedy to comedy ratio. It would be interesting to look for my high school curriculum to see what else we were assigned. Hmmm…

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