New Classics

Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Remember all the serious literature we had to read in English Lit classes--books about whales, starcrossed lovers, law cases whose outcomes were a matter of life and death? I enjoyed some of the assigned reading, but in other cases, it took a lot of fortitude to make it through five pages (it seemed that long anyway) of a description of the sky over the sea at twilight. The books we had to read were classics and I sometimes got the feeling that my teachers didn't really care if we liked the books or not. That didn't seem to be the point. The point was, we read the classics and tried to make some sense of the symbolism, the themes and what the author was trying to say.

If the teacher did a good job, most of us could grasp why the book was considered a classic, but to this day, I just don't get Billy Budd.

I don't know if today's young students are required to read the same books, if the long-ago classics have truly endured for them. Have school systems chosen some new classics, I wonder? While a book like Sense and Sensibility may soar right over the typical 15 year-old's head, perhaps a book like Andre Dubus III's House of Sand and Fog would be more understandable, more concrete. Is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale required reading in a large number of schools? If I taught English Lit, it would be on my list. What about Richard Russo's numerous odes to small town Americana?

Times change and while I hope that Great Expectations is still being taught somewhere, I also hope a more contemporary book is being taught alongside it. I have a short list of what I'd like my students to read, if I were a teacher or professor, books written in the 20th or 21st century and are new classics to me. What are some of your new classics?


Marcia Peterson said...

Great post. Not sure what the kids are reading in English classes these days but I'll find out eventually (my girls are in elementary school now).

Sort of on point, I've found certain "new classic" poetry that's more understandable and concrete, as you say. For example, Billy Collins' (former U.S, Poet Laureate) stuff is accessible yet sublime.

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