Saturday, January 31, 2015

Is Classic Literature Fun?

When I used to teach freshman honors English students would shared their thoughts and insight on the summer reading selection A Separate Peace by John Knowles.  "It was a good book," some would concede, "but it wasn't really a fun read."


As teacher Carol Jago has so eloquently put it, there is a fundamental difference "between reading for pleasure and the study of literature."  Far from giving the kids something fun to read, high school English classes are designed to educate, broaden horizons, and assist students in how to appreciate literature.  To appreciate literature a reader comes to understand and acknowledge the quality and significance of the writing - that doesn't mean they have to like it.  There are many classic works of art - from music to paintings to poems to novels to plays - that I don't prefer.  I might even say I don't like them, as they are not my taste.  However, I won't say that Wutthering Heights is a bad book or that Sonnet 145 is a miserable poem or The Doll House is a worthless piece of drama.  They are quality literature - for all the reasons that we English teachers should fully understand - and we hope that students can come to understand them and acknowledge their place as a record of the human experience.

But they might not like them.

A Separate Peace is the quintessential American coming-of-age novel about two young men in a time of war.  Gene and Finny exemplify the struggles of young people with issues of identity, innocence, and manhood, and ultimately come to understand that "wars are caused by some ignorance in the human heart."  The friendship between the two - especially with the doppleganger motif working - offers two opposing views of the nature of man.  And, as I would begin to work my way through the story with my classes each August, they would slowly, but truly, begin to appreciate the work and its significance.  It really becomes two stories for them - there is the book they read on their own about two boys at school. That is the young adult side to the novel. And, then, there is the allegorical work of literature about the fall of man and the passage into adulthood.  Ultimately, if I've done my job well, students will appreciate the work when we're finished.  But that doesn't mean they'll like it.  Though many will.  By senior year, a considerable number of students cite it as a favorite book from high school.

So, there is value.

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