oh no, not the turtle again

I promised, so I’m coming back to this literature thing. Some of you are scared off right there. The word “literature” has terrified you since since Mrs. Finley in 10th grade stared at you through her little nose-perched glasses and asked, “What is the symbolism of the turtle in Grapes of Wrath? And you thought, “I have no clue, but I do know he took an awful dang long time to cross that stupid road, and I took that as a hint at how boring the other 345 pages would be, so I never got past page 36, and please stop staring at me!”

But I am not Mrs. Finley. And the question on the table was, what makes a book a classic worth asking young people to read despite (or because of) the sad elements in it, and what makes a book simply depressing without a lot of redeeming value in assigning it to kids who have enough garbage in their lives to deal with?

The above example is actually a pretty good one, for me. I have to admit right off, this English teacher despised Steinbeck in high school. Too depressing and too vulgar. I’m still not a huge fan, but I did a 180 and taught Of Mice and Men later because could go back and see the incredible value in the lessons of that book and the mastery in its writing. So, sad and harsh isn’t always bad.

Then there were the things we had to read because teachers were trying too hard to be “relevant.” I know I’ll step on toes here, because people love these books, but I hated, hated, hated reading things like The Outsiders. To quote a review, “This book forever changed the way that Young Adult fiction was written (and) also changed the way that teenagers read, enabling a generation to demand stories that reflected their actuality.”

And my feeling at 14 was that what it did was talk down to teenagers and tell us that teachers knew all we cared about was our own issues and feelings, and therefore we would now be fed a steady diet of books written about our “reality,” which they were only guessing at as far as I could tell and embellishing quite a lot at that. And I sat there thinking, “I am not a stupid selfish high school kid who can’t see past these four years and four walls, and will you please treat me like someone who can do better?” And that’s the way I feel when I look at my daughter’s summer reading list that is full of depressing novels written about “teen reality.” Where are the books written about life’s reality and rising above it?

What would your criteria be? How would you decide between what makes something a classic and what is simply depressing and unnecessary? I think I’d at least start with the question–Does the book offer a redemptive solution at the end, so that the sadness isn’t all there is?

Shakespeare, for all his tragedy, at least tells us how to avoid the same fate if we take notice. Though, were I to tell the tale of Romeo and Juliet, I’d probably offer the moral that girls who get married after knowing a guy for ten minutes might deserve what they get. Not to mention considering stalkers at their windows perfectly acceptable.

What else? Please chime in.

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