Books Are Only Powerful If People Read Them
The “Classics” of Today
“We cannot have expression till there is something to be expressed”
Margaret Fuller writes in her famous essay “American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future” in 1846 and states that Americans do not have their own literature. At the time this was published, America was only around 75 years old, still a very young country. The literature that American’s thought was their own, was just European literature written in America as Fuller believed. There was nothing about the literature being written at the time that made it so special to America. Sure, on paper we were a different country than Britain, but Fuller argues that we were not so different. We were not even that creative with the names of places and just put “New” in front such as “New” York, and “New” Jersey, and even “New” England.
It is now 2020 and our country has changed a lot since Fuller assessed it, including our literature. The issue now is that we have expressions and things to express, a lot of it actually, but we are not utilizing these expressions in teaching literature and consuming literature. We are simply losing young readers. We have hit a literary plateau and the way the American “classics” are taught in our schools is turning young scholars away from reading before they have the chance to learn to love it. Many “classic” novels are classics for a reason, they are very good and very powerful books. However, the students we teach today are incredibly different from the students taught in the 1900s.
A professor from Norfolk State University, Lamiaa Youssef discusses this very problem in her article about how she had to reassess teaching classic literature in her classroom and states: “Reading a text that is removed in time, space, and culture from its audience represents a contradiction to the students’ world of immediate gratification because that text does not yield immediate meanings or relay instant messages” (28). The students have a harder time instantly and directly relating to a text that does not describe their lifestyle and their problems. Yes, they may have similar problems of self-identity, but there are layers of understanding to get through first. “Classics” deal with different times with different traditions than today, which are not always helpful for newer readers. Students today have new technology and overall just extremely different lifestyles than those of characters in great literature. Reading older books and determining their messages and themes in the classroom is extremely important to learn about history and general life lessons, but it is harder for current students to relate to these older novels. Youssef continues with “To them, the text becomes no more than an artifact they examine as an object alien to them” (28). Students have a hard time understanding these older texts and seeing themselves in them when they are so removed from current times. We push making connections, text-to-text, text-to-self, and text-to-world, but we are not aiding students in this process at all by strictly teaching the “classics” in the unengaging ways they have been taught for the past century. In addition, we are not including any reading motivation in our classrooms. Just because we teach the same literature and that value of literature never lessens does not mean we should teach it the same way decade after decade.
These classic American authors have pushed for the need to read current literature and make connections with older literature, but schools are doing the opposite of that. Schools are teaching literature the same way they always have, and students are not gaining anything productive from it. Nineteenth-century authors such as Margaret Fuller, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman all discuss the importance of reading current literature as well as the importance of finding yourself. In order to produce more efficient and self-aware students, we need to open the American literary canon and use a combination of current Young Adult (YA) literature with “classic” literature and authors to increase reading motivation and teach self-identity. Books are only powerful if people read them, it is time to start getting more students to love reading.
The Problem With Classes Today– What Does Emerson Have to Say About it?
Our education system, to start, is not the most successful on the global scale. Our country does not fund it or value it enough and getting resources in certain districts is challenging. However, our school systems can do more with what they already have. Just because a school is underfunded is no excuse to teach literature the same year after year. Even if an English classroom is given certain titles to work with, there are endless possibilities of ways to teach those titles that do not always end in writing a boring paper about what those students will see as a boring book. The majority of our English classrooms as they are, are very boring. No student goes through an entire school curriculum without having at least a few boring English classes. Even the most prestigious and intelligent English Literature scholars can probably attest to this. Teaching English Literature is stuck in a pattern that possibly is the most unengaging pattern, especially with the technology students have access to today. Usually, these classes follow this format: introduction of the “classic” novel, assigned reading of the novel that at least eighty percent of the class does not do and turns to Sparknotes for quick and easy understanding, class discussions where only the twenty percent of students who read the book talk about the symbolism, themes, and plot, and finally a paper is assigned with a boring prompt such as “Explain the symbols in Lord of the Flies and discuss why they are critical in understanding the deeper meaning.” The papers are graded and returned, and the process begins again. Is it important to know how to write a good paper? Absolutely! Is that the only way to assess understanding? Absolutely not! Having gone through painfully boring English classes in high school recently, I can speak from experience. I am also currently majoring in English Literature, but the English classes I took in high school were not the reason I chose to major in it; I just love books.
Ralph Waldo Emerson addresses how we think about scholars and books in his essays “American Scholar” and “Culture” really resonate with the case of why we read. In “American Scholar” he argues that everyone is a scholar and I think we are forgetting that in our education system today. Especially with teaching “classic” literature, English is seen more and more like a “reach” subject. For example, some students do not think they are smart enough to engage with complicated texts because they are taught so cut and dry. Nobody should ever feel this way about books, there is always a way to be involved with literature. Feeling that it should be left to the people who like it and who are “smart enough” to read it is unfortunate. Emerson thinks that everyone is a scholar in his/her own way. Maybe they are not “book smart” and struggle to learn in the classroom environment, but have so much knowledge about farming and agriculture as Emerson puts it:
“Life is our dictionary … Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made.”
Life is our dictionary! We write about our lives and how we live them. Our schools need to value this concept that not everyone can be engaged with literature in the same way, but literature can apply to everyone. There is a purpose to every form of writing: to be read later. Whether that is a grocery list, a diary, or a novel. We write things down to remember them and all of that writing is valuable. So while the student that struggles with English class and writing MLA format papers may not be seen as smart, or worthy enough to engage with “classic” literature, he should be because maybe he is amazing at film but never given the opportunity to show it. If he was given a chance to connect literature to his interests, the papers that will have to write would most likely be better. Students today are ruling out reading as being boring and “not for them” because they are not taught engaging ways to understand it. They are not encouraged to be a part of the great conversation.
Emerson also makes a key point in “Culture” that very much applies to education today:
“Books are good only as far as a boy is ready for them. He sometimes gets ready very slowly. You send your child to the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys who educate him. You send him to the Latin class, but much of his tuition comes, on his way to school, from the shop-windows”
School is a life experience. Students are learning social skills, emotional regulation, mental toughness, and how to be a part of our society. They are all doing this in completely different ways. Every student and every human being has strengths and weaknesses. We cannot expect every student to understand the significance of more complex “classic” books, and be ready for these complex books without easing them into it. If Emerson were alive today and saw the state of our English literature classrooms he would not be pleased. We do not value the student for who they are and how their scholarly acts can help our world. We do not address current issues that students could relate to and engage with more in conversation with timeless issues in “classic” novels. Emerson in “Culture” even states that we should and always need to be addressing current literature alongside past literature:
“Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.”
There are certainly lessons to be learned and beauty to revel at in our “classic” American canon, but just those books by themselves, as Emerson warns, will not help current generations. Instead, we need to engage students and motivate them to read with the perfect tool available: Young Adult literature.
How Can Young Adult Literature Help?
Reading motivation is a key factor in getting students to engage with “classic” literature texts. When students learn to read in elementary school, the goal is just to get them to want to read and do it often so they can get good at it. Once students get to around 4th grade they start reading for learning instead of learning how to read. Throughout this whole experience, students are encouraged to read whenever and whatever they can even if it is the back of a cereal box or a street sign. Reading is the most necessary skill you learn in school (as you need it for every other school subject). To do so, elementary school teachers find books that align with a particular student’s interest. For instance, if a boy really likes soccer a teacher may find a book about an athlete. That student will be more likely to read if what they are reading pertains to them. A boy that is interested in soccer will not be as motivated to read if he has to read books about princesses, for example. This basic concept, that makes a lot of sense and is very effective at getting students to read, pretty much stops once they are reading efficiently enough, usually around middle school. After that, students are expected to read the books that are listed on the syllabus and are also expected to be reading independently. However, they are never given much advice or support in finding books they may enjoy. Instead, the focus is all on the syllabus books which are typically “classics.”
Young Adult (YA) literature is a big umbrella genre of books, and its name usually makes it sound juvenile with not much literary value. However, YA literature is anything but. Mathis and Vaughan explain how:
“A broad range of topics has emerged within the genre including murder, suicide, drug use, sexuality, and identity. YA literature is written in language that appeals to teenagers through characters with whom young readers identify and plots that mirror realistic adolescent situations” (289).
These YA books cover all genres as well. For example, fiction (fantasy, realistic fiction, historical fiction, science fiction), non-fiction, and poetry are all part of YA literature. What is so key about YA literature that will help schools teach “classic” literature is that it is very fun to read. The plotlines are kept pretty simple and easy to follow and the problems that the main characters face are usually realistic to those that current adolescents may face. Serious topics such as suicide, LBGTQ+, and racism as Mathis and Vaughn list, are all included in books that can be understood by students today. These topics are also in “classic” literature but because students have to decode some of these works just to understand the plot, their deeper meaning does not have the same impact. Mathis and Vaughan continue with “Students connect with characters and situations individually as they relate to identity themes based on their own fears, joys, beliefs, and values. Young adult novels have the potential to affect student identities in positive ways” (300).
Students that can see themselves in the literature they read are going to be more affected by the deeper meaning. This literature also does not have to have a deeper meaning if those kinds of books get them to read. “Beach reads” or books that have simple and extremely predictable plot lines with not many themes or messages are still valuable to students. These books are entertainment and are similar to a guilty pleasure. They may not have much literary merit to be involved in the classroom, but if that is what Suzie likes to read and she is reading more books because of it, then teachers should encourage her to keep reading those kinds of books. Maybe with time teachers can start challenging her to read more books that are similar but do have more literary merit with a little more grit. Bryne explains how, “When teen readers have opportunities to read and interact with engaging, contemporary works of YAL, they read for enjoyment and can connect meaningfully with texts” (224). Reading is reading and the more that a student practices it, the better they will be at it. Even if they are still just reading simple books, they are practicing their skills of comprehension and connection that will help them read more complex books in addition to helping them with their writing. Students will start making more connections with the texts on the syllabus when they have more of a reading repertoire to pull connections from. It is hard to make intertextual connections when there are no other texts to make connections with. Bryne continues this idea with:
“YAL is an excellent choice for engaging students in critical thinking and literary discussions in the English language arts classroom because it is accessible and engaging to young adults who are figuring out the world around them, making choices about their own lives, and learning how they can affect such a changing world” (229).
YA literature is so important to read today and to encourage our students to read. Reading is an outlet that is both a source of entertainment and also a source of education. Emerson would love how these books open the discussion of the different ways everyone can be a scholar and learn from the world around them. Although the lessons from “classic” literature are important to learn, the lessons from current literature can be very helpful for students trying to navigate their life and figure out what values hold the most meaning to them.
There are “classic” YA books that are being taught, such as The Outsiders, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Giver, and Lord of the Flies. However, they are classic because they have been around for so many years, and taught because they are considered “classic.” Why can’t current literature be seen as “classic?” Does literature just need time to be considered “classic?” According to our schools, it does. Instead of just teaching the “classics,” YA and Adult, we need to incorporate current YA books and connect them with said “classics.”
Combining Current and “Classic” Literature
An example of a way to combine current YA literature with “classic” literature in a classroom would be to teach two texts, one current and one “classic” that have very similar overall messages. This will allow the students to first engage with a text that is very pertinent to their lifestyles and reads easier to grasp a more comprehensive idea about the bigger message. Then, the teacher would introduce a “classic” text with that same overall message. Reading the current YA literature first gets the students more motivated to read as well as actually understanding the concept the teacher originally intended to teach. The students can dive into a more complicated and older text that may not get at the message right away and feel more confident and curious about doing so. Students will be able to make more meaningful connections and will probably get a much better understanding of a complex text; a text that may have initially been boring to them. Finally, have students show their understanding of both texts and their learning of the deeper meaning in a different way than a simple compare and contrast paper. Yes, they will need to write papers as papers help with the articulation of an argument and using evidence correctly, but papers should not be their only form of assessment. Instead, include group projects, creative writing, artwork, movies or trailers, podcasts, and book talks. By including more opportunities to show their learning, the students will be more motivated to fully involve themselves with both texts. Learning can be very fun, especially when working with books.
One lesson idea that could be very powerful in a high school classroom would be to combine YA literature about LGBTQ+ issues, specifically Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli with “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman to teach about self-identity. Katherine Batchelor and others did a study on preservice teachers and their thoughts about teaching LGBTQ+ literature in public high schools. They first prefaced their study with an explanation of why teaching these YA books dealing with LGBTQ+ problems using adolescent characters in usually high school settings was very impactful in classrooms. The preservice teachers agreed that these books needed to be taught in high schools because “there could be so many students that feel so unsafe coming out … to even take these [books] out of the curriculum is basically saying, we’re just ignoring it. It sends the wrong message’” (32). New problems arise and are faced by new generations, a school system that ignores those problems is not teaching anything useful for those students. The authors follow up by saying that:
“Rather than shying away from this uncomfortable time, teachers should use the curriculum to help students form their identity” (33).
High school is such an interesting time to be a student because you are figuring out who you are and what your beliefs are. Today, our society is more in support of LGBTQ+ people and students feel comfortable coming out in these years. Often students are not sure what their sexuality is or have parents that would not support them and are not finding any of that support in the curriculum. These students may feel like outsiders but the inclusion of this literature may be helpful for them as well as for their classmates to take a different perspective. Not to mention that usually in YA books that deal with self-identity the protagonists are very round and complex characters, they have to be, which can open up even more discussions of simple literary elements. “Classic” novels are filled with notable literary elements, but current YA books are also and are certainly worth taking a look at.
Simon, the main character in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, is a high school boy who is struggling with high school itself as well as coming to terms with who he is. He has an email pen-pal whom he shares his struggles with and is blackmailed into coming out with the discovery of the emails and the threat of sharing these emails. It is a very easy-to-read book that many students will enjoy reading. They will be able to understand what Simon is dealing with and what it is teaching him. In comparison, “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman is a series of poems that do not deal with coming out and blackmailing over emails but explores the self. Breaking down his poems with the previous context of a YA novel could make for some very interesting and deep connections.
Whitman shows himself in a very different way than Simon. He speaks of “singing” which is not actually singing, but speaking out and being proud of what he believes in. His poems deal with discovery through anatomy and nature. What is he hearing, smelling, tasting? He is confident in his very first lines of Poem 1:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself, /And what I assume you shall assume, /For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you”
Whitman is appreciating his life and what he has learned, what he has loved, and where that has led him. Also he is invested in looking at how powerful the self really is: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body,/And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,/And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,” (Poem 48). Whitman’s “Song of Myself ultimately stands for figuring your life out for yourself, no one else can do it for you. You are your own person and you have to own up to that, and be your own person. One could even ask the question, what could Simon learn from Whitman and vice versa? The fact that Simon is blackmailed could easily be contrasted to Whitman’s idea of the individual holding the greatest power. Simon needs to own up to who he is and not just live to please the people that may not support him, but is it as easy as Whitman makes it sound?
An idea for an assessment may be to have students write their own “Song of Myself” and see what they value as part of their identity. How could they make “Song of Myself” hold the same meaning but use current, high school friendly, language? How does seeing Simon’s struggle in finding himself help them? There are endless possibilities with where this lesson could go and it is ideas like these that need to be discussed in classrooms today. Just looking at “Song of Myself” alone may not have as big of an impact than it would in alignment with a YA book. By making two brilliant texts in which students can use one to help understand another is the power of literature then revealed. Students have voices and literature can help them use them:
“Moreover, literature has the potential to empower readers to take action on controversial issues, especially when readers are in positions to make change (no matter how subtle)” (Batchelor et al 30). For more book pairing ideas look at this list of other YA and “classic” literature pairings.
It’s not just the books we read, it’s how we read them, and how we teach them. How do we make these books meaningful for adolescents today? How can we teach them in a way that they will actually take away from the lesson and bring it into a bigger part of their own life? Education is not just being “book smart.” Education is about learning how to solve problems, find yourself, and make connections to things that matter most in students’ lives, whatever that may be. It is hard to constantly change a curriculum and come up with new ways to teach literature and figure out what new literature to teach, but it is necessary to keep up with our ever-changing world. Our English classes are in dire need of a new structure and YA literature is the perfect fit. “Classics” should be read and appreciated, but students need a “buy-in” and a chance to feel like they can relate to the characters. Reading YA books and encouraging students to read on their own is going to motivate them to enjoy reading more complex texts as well as reading in itself. Reading should never consistently be a chore, it needs to be enjoyed!
Young people have voices and they should never be afraid to use them. We are creating young scholars, they need to know that their voices are important and their voices are heard as said by authors from the 19th century to today. Students’ work should be something they are proud of and teachers should provide a platform for their brilliant minds to be displayed. While the “classics” may be seen as the only form of meaningful literature, it should not. YA literature has many great tools and messages that fit in classrooms today and encourage students to create their own literature. As Margaret Fuller puts it:
“The most important part of our literature, while the work of diffusion is still going on, lies in the journals, which monthly, weekly, daily, send their messages to every corner of this great land, and form, at present, the only efficient instrument for the general education of the people.”
It is time we value all literature and see value in all literature. It is time we update our English classes to be part of the current life conversations. It is time all students learn to love reading.
Batchelor, Katherine E., et al. “Opening Doors: Teaching LGBTQ-Themed Young Adult Literature for an Inclusive Curriculum.” Clearing House, vol. 91, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 29–36. EBSCOhost.
Byrne Bull, Kelly. “Connecting With Texts: Teacher Candidates Reading Young Adult Literature.” Theory Into Practice, vol. 50, no. 3, June 2011, pp. 223–230. EBSCOhost.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Culture.” The Conduct of Life. Wikisource. The Conduct of Life. Wikisource, 2012. Web. 27 Nov. 2020. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Conduct_of_Life/Culture.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The American Scholar.” The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson , Printfriendly.com, www.printfriendly.com/p/g/exL4yC.
Fuller, Margaret. “American Literature; Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future.” American Transcendentalism Web, American Transcendentalism Web, https://archive.vcu.edu/english/engweb/transcendentalism/authors/fuller/fulleramlit.html.
Mathis, Janelle, and Polly Vaughan. “Acknowledging Ability and Agency in Book Discussion Communities: Adolescent Boys Experiencing Psychosocial Distress Examine Suicide in Young Adult Novels.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, vol. 12, no. 3, Aug. 2018, pp. 287–302. EBSCOhost.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself”. 1891–1892. The Walt Whitman Archive. Gen. ed. Matt Cohen, Ed Folsom, and Kenneth M. Price. Accessed 25 October 2020. https://whitmanarchive.org/published/LG/1891/poems/27.
Youssef, Lamiaa. “A Matter of Relevance: Teaching Classics in the 21st Century.” College Teaching, vol. 58, no. 1, Winter 2010, pp. 28–31. EBSCOhost.