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The Value in Classic Literature

by Megan Waardenburg

We all read our first classic novel around seventh or eighth grade. Maybe it was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Lord of the Flies, or Treasure Island; regardless of the novel, the experience typically leads students away from wanting to read classic novels. Most students complain that the plot is too boring at the beginning, the language is too complex, or there are just better books out there to read. Classic novels are regarded with such high prestige for good reason; they are often the stories with the strongest social commentary, the thickest and most original plots, the most eloquent writing, or the greatest effects on the world during their times. Though these impactful novels are essential to a well rounded education, students often struggle to understand or enjoy the story.

The choices complex writers make often are incomprehensible to us, but students typically find it rewarding to fit the pieces of the story together. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of symbols, themes, motifs, and allusions when all you’re looking for is a plot. This is the primary reason students either love or hate The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Novels like Gatsby depend on the reader’s ability to understand symbolism in order to understand the plot. Students who enjoy interpreting these elements while others would rather stick to the plot. In order to ease your way into appreciating literature, try reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, or Lord of the Flies by William Golding.

Distinct language can be difficult to decipher, and can scare students away from reading certain books. The most infamous pieces featuring this language are typically written by Shakespeare. William Shakespeare’s distinct Elizabethan era language is tremendously difficult for 21st century teenagers to understand, but most students find the plots to be some of their favorites in English classes. To experiment with Shakespearean language, try reading Macbeth to start. On the other end of the spectrum, Mark Twain’s American southern dialect is difficult for students to read, since the spelling and colloquial terms are vastly different from the current dialect we speak. Sandra Bohrer, the AP Literature teacher at Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School, claims that she sees the best results from students who are willing to decipher the words and immerse themselves in the setting.To start improving your ability to comprehend difficult knowledge, try starting with And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie, or Animal Farm by George Orwell.

Though classic literature is difficult to understand, there are immense benefits to investing time in them, particularly for students. Students can easily improve their vocabularies through classic books. In particular, Shakespeare’s plays display nearly 2,000 new words created during his time. Reading commonly used English words in their origin can provide a greater understanding of our own language, and make it easier to use them in daily life.

Classic novels allow readers to look at history from inside the minds of its most influential contributors. In Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, readers learn about the Victorian era through the eyes of Austen’s non-conventional protagonist, or about the Middle Ages England through The Canterbury Tales  by Geoffrey Chaucer. Reading novels from distinct historical eras offer opportunities to see the society at the time in the purest primary sources existing. Novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and The Count of Monte Cristo are some of the most popular for readers interested in history. Bohrer implores her students to embrace the idea that they are connecting with a story written by someone possibly hundreds of years ago, and reacting the same way others did during its time. The timeless nature of classic novels allow people from every time period to embrace the human experience from the same stories.

A significant number of stories we read and watch today are influenced by classic novels. Film adaptations of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald,and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien. Modernized adaptations have grown into a major movie genre throughout the past fifty years. Popular animated movies such as The Lion King, which is based off of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Easy A, based off of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, use these classic stories to tell the story to people who will likely never pick up the book. If the story is so compelling that an entire industry is focusing on telling them to us, why aren’t we putting effort into reading them? The stories we read allow us to see how far we have come as a society, or how far we haven’t come. Through retellings of these stories, people miss this historical component of the stories, but still allow us to learn the same stories.

Classic novels are hard to read; we all know it. The challenging task of completing a classic novel on your own is rewarding, but it’s generally difficult to know where to start. Just pick up a book, and keep reading. It takes willpower to keep reading when the story goes downhill, but it will be immensely rewarding to reach the point in the book where everything comes together. Discuss the story with other people, even if they’re not familiar with the book. Bohrer says she has had students create opinions they had never realized they held through discussing. Classic novels are not held in such reverence for no reason. I urge you not to dismiss novels due to a negative experience in school. We don’t look at a painting and rule out all other works of art due to one unfavorable piece of work. Literature is a form of art that expresses human experiences in a unique way, and it’s important that we make an effort to keep them alive. These novels are the best stories our society has had to offer throughout the history of the world, and we can all benefit from reading at least one.

Image by Morgan Hanna