In late June, when regular classes had ended and our students were in the midst of finals week, I began a light weeding of the fiction collection in our high school library. More than once, I came across a classic like Willa Cather’s My Antonia sitting on a shelf next to a contemporary romance or young adult dystopian thriller. Each of these genres has its merits, but it had always struck me as odd for them to be organized in a way where they were all mixed together. So I took on the project of pulling each classic work of fiction and creating two separate bookcases for them.
During this strenuous reorganization, I contemplated the role classics play within the high school curriculum, and the definition of what makes a book a classic. When I was in library school, I wrote my thesis on the portrayal of immigrant Latinos in contemporary young adult literature. The value of promoting diverse books is indisputable; widening the range of what we label classics is part of that. During my reshelving, I included works by renowned authors of various backgrounds, races, and ethnicities. I also had to remind myself why some of the titles, many written by white males, were still relevant in our modern world. Even though people have criticized the canon for not being inclusive, there is still value in many of these brilliant books. In a 2014 New York Times Book Review article, Daniel Mendelsohn states, “the traditional canon. . .is, in fact, good for you. It provides invaluable insight into the thinking in the past that has helped form the present.” He goes on to point out that because readers today are made up largely of a worldwide digital audience, their interactions with literature is a big part of how books are interpreted in modern society. Even those books that contain chauvinistic or racist views present an opportunity for students to understand the damaging ideas that exist in the context of literature of the past.
The conclusions I came to during the long, quiet hours of book shifting were:
- A classic is any book that is infused with universal themes and speaks loudly to all humanity through superior prose, and
- There is a beauty that exists in the traditional classics that comes partly from the absence of technology and social media in their pages, and partly from the sheer power that these authors give to words.
I recently started a podcast with my 16-year-old daughter in which we discuss books that have been adapted to movies. In two of our earliest episodes we talked about A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson. While we both saw some positives in the movies, we agreed that the books far outshined the screen versions. Today’s children grow up with images constantly presented to them. Books written before technology exploded use the strength of words to convey their messages. These authors demonstrate how poignant language can be, without any gadgets or gimmicks attached. This is not to diminish the value of contemporary books that use technology to engage teens in exciting plots and important moral issues. The key is to balance these two different, but equally crucial, elements of teenagers’ reading curriculums.
Which leads to another question that my weeding produced: How can we, as librarians and educators, combine the beauty of classics with the freshness and dynamism of modern novels? One idea is to pair classics with contemporary works that were inspired by them. Not only will this make reading curriculums more balanced, but it will also show teens that great writing moves people to respond by exploring similar issues using their own perspectives. Some possible combinations are: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld; Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and The Winters by Lisa Gabriele; and The Odyssey by Homer and Circe by Madeline Miller. If teachers are unable to incorporate these modern books into their classroom reading assignments, then as librarians, we can promote them ourselves. By doing this, we are teaching teenagers that literature is not stagnant, but is a moving, flowing entity. No matter what shelves the classics exist on, they have the power to create dialogues that span centuries, and keep critical thinking and intellectual interaction alive.
Author: Karin Greenberg
Karin Greenberg is the librarian at Manhasset High School in Manhasset, New York. She is a former English teacher and writes book reviews for School Library Journal. In addition to reading, she enjoys animals, walking, hiking, and spending time with her family. Follow her book account on Instagram @bookswithkg.