Participating in the classics

Posted: May 30, 2013

When it comes to classic books, it’s what the reader brings to the page 

“The greatest art belongs to the world. Do not be intimidated by the experts. Trust your instincts. Do not be afraid to go against what you have been taught, or what you were told to see or believe. Every person, every set of eyes, has the right to the truth.”

The above quote is referring to a painting stolen in the children’s novel Chasing Vermeer by Blue Balliett, but it’s just as applicable when referring to the art of literature. The art of literature is often categorized by what is called the “literary canon,” or  a group of literary works that are considered the most important of a particular time period or place.

A faculty member of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland said that “until a [piece of] literature has a ‘canon,’ it has been argued, it has not risen to the level of sophistication at which it can be studied seriously by scholars.” But in Chasing Vermeer, Balliett challenges the common public to “X the experts” and determine for themselves what is worth seeing or, in this case, what is worth reading.

Take The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger for instance. Considered a classic by those anonymous “experts,” even though those who read it are not persuaded.

“[I didn’t like] The Catcher in the Rye,” said senior John Hellevik. “It was just poorly written and it was an awful story. [Plus] Holden Caulfield (main character) is a spoiled brat and I hate him.”

Since that “classic” seemed to be a bust, one must ask, how can it become a classic? What makes a book a classic?

“I think the ability of a story to resonate with different kinds of people over time is one of the generally accepted characteristics of classic literature,” said AP English 11 teacher Ken Myhre. “[It’s important] for a story to connect with what is universally human, to appeal to many people in many times and places. Also, the artistic component [of a book], the way it’s written and it’s originality.”

It seems that for a “classic” book to be considered as such, it has to have some lesson to be learned that is relevant to the reader’s world.

“I’d say a classic book is one that people can read all the time and still have it be relevant in their life,” said sophomore Jennifer Mrozek. “You know, kind of like Romeo and Juliet and how the lessons in it can be applied to today, even though it was written so long ago.”

When choosing books to be read in the classrooms, English teachers agree that a student will get more out of a book if they enjoy it. However, there are certain stories, certain “classics,” that a student wouldn’t pick up on their own that a teacher sees fit to include in the curriculum.

“There’s always a tension, for me as a teacher, of what should students be reading in terms of the classics as opposed to what will they enjoy reading,” said Myhre. “What will appeal to their specific literary tastes, their own personal tastes. So I work hard to try to help students that probably wouldn’t pick up a particular book on their own to read it personally to appreciate why we would read it communally.”

Honors English 10 and English 12 teacher Robyn Westrem agrees.

“It would be wonderful if people were reading what they loved all the time but a lot of critical reading and I think a lot of really important education is being able to read something unfamiliar,” Westrem said. “Knowing how to move through something that is, maybe not your first choice, is still important.”

The likability of a certain book, whether it be “classic” or not, is all based on relativity.

“First of all the experience of reading isn’t alike for any two readers, we’re all so different,” said Myhre. “I would argue that most books will only return in direct proportion to what readers are willing to invest [in them]. It’s often what we bring to a story ourselves that allows the story to operate.”

Myhre’s theory of getting out what you put in is mirrored in the book The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had by Susan Wise Bauer.

“Reading is a discipline,” Bauer writes. “Because we can read the newspaper or Time or Stephen King without difficulty, we tend to think that we should be able to go directly into Homer or Henry James without any further preparation. And when we stumble, grow confused or weary, we take this as proof of our mental inadequacy: We’ll never be able to read the Great Books [the ‘classics’]. The truth is that the study of literature requires different skills than reading for pleasure. The inability to tackle, unaided, a list of Great Books and stick to the project doesn’t demonstrate mental inadequacy-just a lack of preparation.”

The “preparation” that Bauer talks about is similar to the energy Myhre believes you must invest in a “classic” in order to appreciate it.

“To appreciate a classic, you do have to invest some energy and you do have to have a set of skills,” Myhre continued. “You do have to want to see something and want to understand and want to participate in the conversation with the author. It’s not some kind of independent trick or magic that occurs, you have to want to participate.”

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