Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience!

Publisher’s Weekly recently ran a post titled, “10 Classic Books You Read in High School You Should Reread.”  Most of the post is devoted to a list, which by and large I think is pretty interesting. The writer notes that there are some choices that would evoke a “meh” from him, such as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter.  Not sure I would agree with either, even though the latter was pretty tough going. Here are some of my thoughts about why we shouldn’t write off the “classics” we struggled through in high school.

1. Most of us were more pre-occupied with the girl or boy sitting next to us than what the whale symbolized, or the complexities of sexuality we encountered in Anna Karenina that were still years ahead for us.

2. In high school, we just didn’t have that much life experience to find the life experience in these works making much sense. It seems to me that one of the attractions of Young Adult fiction is that it connects to current, not future life experience. I also suspect for this reason, it will be less interesting as these Young Adults go on in life.

3. Conversely, as we do go on in life, we need works that explore life in its complexities and ambiguities, that explore the depths of human experience and character.

4. Not all high school teachers were created equally. Some were able to capture the imaginations of their students enough to have them explore worlds beyond their own in the literature they read and then find the connection back to their own world. Others were less inspiring and not a match for the works they were called on to teach, as valiantly as they tried.

5. Hopefully you are a better reader now than then, though that cannot be assumed. As I explored in “Digital Brains?” our internet usage may militate against the kind of attentive, slow reading great books require. Along the way, I hope you have had to do enough of the attentive, focused reading that you are able to engage the worlds of classic writers.

I really didn’t get into Steinbeck in high school. Reading him more recently, I discovered what a great work East of Eden  is and the profound insights into mid-life, and human nature more broadly that we gain in Winter of our Discontent. What I find as I go on in life that I hunger for something deeper than quickly browsed stories on the internet, tweets and status updates. I long for something deeper than I find in a “beach read”.  Centrally, my faith answers to that longing, but great works that explore the human condition also capture my imagination and “read” me.

What high school classic have you reread and what was your experience.?


5 thoughts on “Don’t Judge a Classic by Your High School Experience!

  1. I only read about half that list in Highschool (though Huck Finn was much earlier) and most of them I enjoyed (except for The Great Gatsby). Catcher in the Rye (not on the list but one I had to read) never really spoke to me either.

    That said, as a writer myself I am a little skeptical of some classics, particularly from writers who were the equivalent of today’s Nicholas Sparks. Not everything that is old or long is a classic (though this list doesn’t seem to include any of the worst offenders (I’m looking at you Dickens)).


  2. Here is a casual review I once wrote for Jane Eyre:

    Jane Eyre is my favorite fiction book of all time. But to fully appreciate this book requires that you be a “mature” reader. And also realize that this book was written in another era, where society and standards were different than today.

    I originally read this book years ago for my highschool literature class. Although I didn’t dis-like the book, I didn’t exactly like it either. It did not have much of an impact on me. I think I was too immature (lacking in life experiences) to relate to and understand some of the strong emotions and the complex sides of human nature portrayed in the book.

    Reading this book years later as a mature adult, I was deeply touched by the story of Jane Eyre. You experience a variety of emotions: abandonment, despair, love, romance, mystery, danger, heartache. And Jane Eyre was really a character ahead of her time – Although content to conform to the standards expected of a woman in her time period, Jane had an independent mind and spirit. She would not do something against her will, heart, or conscience. She was not afraid to speak her mind. She had strong moral beliefs and would not waver from them. She is a heroine to be admired and respected.

    So much more could be said, but I will leave it at that. If you were disapointed by Jane Eyre if you read it as a teenager, try reading it again as an adult.


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