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Shooting for Canon

Most highschoolers aren’t the most discerning of folks.  I know my tastes during that phase of my life were pretty awful, not that they aren’t questionable to this day.  Still, kids know what they like and don’t like, and I don’t think I’m going very far out on a limb to say that most kids don’t like the books assigned to them in highschool English.

What got me on this train of thought was the fact that I’ve been reading John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, which is a damn fine read and makes me wonder why highschoolers get stuck with the heavy and depressing Grapes of Wrath, and Of Mice & Men.  Not that these aren’t fine and important books, for they are, but they are a pretty hard slog for your average 15-year-old.   Given that each suceeding generation is less and less likely to read for pleasure, putting kids to the task of reading depressing stories of migrant workers’ miscarriages and a mentally disabled man’s unintentional grisly act of murder seems unlikely to foster a greater passion for literature.  I’m not trying to discount these books, because I actually liked and respect both stories, and “get” them, though how much I “got” 15 years ago is moot.  These books both made much deeper impressions on me after subsequent, more mature readings.  Just because you understand all of the words and have a general knowledge of the historical context in which they were set doesn’t mean you “get” the story, which was very much the case with me, as a sophomore or junior in highschool.

Because most kids are probably not really emotionally mature enough to really understand the stories and are likely to discount them as boring and depressing, it would make more sense to me to introduce them to an author by a more accessible work, such as the aforementioned Travels With Charley. While a privileged young American of today may have a hard time relating to and understanding the depression-era books, I doubt they’d have a hard time getting into a book about a guy who goes on a big road trip for one last crack at adventure. The book is no means a trifle – it raises many questions about the contemporary state of America at the book’s writing (1960) and can be related to some changes and some things which have remained static and whether these things can be considered praiseworthy or questionable. The book holds merit for discussion about what America, its regions, its people, and its literature are all about.

Easing kids in with more accessible and entertaining works of major authors might not be a bad way to go. The canon will be around forever, and I submit that a kid might be more likely to explore the landmark works of any given author after having read some of the author’s less-celebrated and “easier” work.

Similar to my endorsement of Travels With Charley, I’d totally recommend Keroac’s On The Road, a book which most teens who read for amusement will read at some point, of their own volition. I reckon that this book would go down well as assigned reading, and might feed into discussions of other picaresques. This would be an opportune juncture at which to introduce Voltaire’s Candide and discuss satire. The canon-but-engaging Gulliver’s Travels wouldn’t go amiss here, nor would my favorite Dickens novel that never gets read in school, Pickwick Papers.

Shakespeare’s MacBeth tends to go over well because it is satisfyingly violent and gruesome (also gratifyingly short) Other fun-but-never taught plays such as Much Ado About Nothing and As You Like It might draw more students in than the usual rounds of tragic Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet, and the obligatory Julius Caesar. There is plenty that is teachable in the comedies, and they seem to get the shortest shrift of all of Shakespeare’s body of work.

I don’t know where I’m going with this really. Basically it is just a rant, since I’m in no position to influence what anybody teaches to anyone. I just was looking back on my experiences of literature from when I was a teenager and realizing that while I read the assignments and basically got out of it what the teachers lectured to us in class, I didn’t get much out of the readings of my own accord. I was one of the few kids in my class who actually did do the reading at all, and I often found it pretty hard going. Some books (Red Badge of Courage, I am looking at YOU) I only read from a sense of duty. Others, like Brave New World, I actually honestly got into. I do know that I was kind of an odd kid in that I earnestly enjoyed reading, and made time to read my school assignments. For my friends who didn’t read for pleasure, the assigned reading was onerous and frequently dumped in favor of Cliff’s Notes and cheating off an obliging classmate who had read the homework. I have no way of backing this up, but I have a real gut feeling that if more of the reading had been more attuned to stuff kids actually might enjoy, more of the reading would actually have been read.

But of course, I could well be talking out my own ass.

One Response to “Shooting for Canon”

  1. […] I’ve already written about how I’ve come to appreciate Steinbeck but I will reiterate: for those of you who were forced to read The Grapes of Wrath or Of Mice And Men and drug your heels, I heartily recommend that you read Cannery Row, a story about a bunch of derelict misfits who throw a disastrous party, Travels With Charlie, Steinbeck’s personal memoir of an epic roadtrip taken with only his French Poodle as a copilot, or the book I’m reading right now, Sweet Thursday. Steinbeck was a hell of a storyteller; you’ll read an example of that in just a minute. […]

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