Classics vs. contemporary

By the end of the school year, thousands of students are ready to throw their copies of Shakespeare into a bonfire, frustrated from analyzing the complicated and often confusing language of the classics.

So why do we subject many high school students to so much of what they hate? While I love the classics, many teenagers do not. Schools, and society on the whole, seem to possess the idea that if you're reading a book that was written in the last decade or so, you can only be reading for entertainment - a fallacy that is causing many young readers to develop a distaste for reading itself.

Rather than placing such a heavy emphasis on classical literature, schools should strive to find a greater balance between all the genres available to the modern reader.

Many people argue that the classics have stood the test of time, and so we can place a higher level of trust in their quality. While this is true, age is not the only measure of merit. People are intelligent; we should be able to gauge for ourselves whether a book is well-written, with engaging and complex characters, good literary devices and a creative, nicely-paced plot. These elements are what make a high-quality book, not the date on the copyright page.

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak is one example of a modern book that has both fantastic writing and an engaging plot. It tells the story of a German girl during World War II and uses vivid imagery and an innovative voice to bring the story to life. Narrated by Death, the book uses ample symbolism and tells a historically important story that is also enjoyable to read.

Teenagers are more likely to understand and relate to books written today, both because of the characters and the language used. For example, Stanley Yelnats from Louis Sachar's "Holes" has a way of thinking and behaving that students may be more able to identify with than, say, that of Tom Joad from Steinbeck's Depression-era novel, "The Grapes of Wrath."

At the same time, contemporary novels can still challenge a reader's mind and expand his or her vocabulary. And there's an added perk: modern books contain language that is more relevant to a student's daily life. Words and their usage are constantly evolving, and contemporary literature is able to teach students an expansive knowledge of modern language.

Another benefit of broadening the contemporary works taught in school is that it exposes students to a wider array of genres. Although there is variety among the classics, schools tend to stick to the mainstream works: Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare and Mark Twain, among others. Genres such as science fiction and fantasy are relatively young, and, of course, no book written in centuries past features modern settings and cultural references.

With a greater variety of genres comes more ways of viewing the world and better chances that students will find a type of book they enjoy. Books are not a one-size-fits-all experience. Different people have different tastes. Not everyone enjoys horror, or action, or romance. It's all a matter of finding what you do like.

Once students find a genre they enjoy, it's more likely they will develop a love of reading both inside the classroom and out -- something that's essential for their future success. According to a report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, more than 60 percent of middle and high school students aren't reading at a proficient level. This disparity between ideal proficiency and actual performance will hamper a student in all academic fields, throughout high school and college. Assigned reading is a common teaching method, and if students have difficulty comprehending what they read, it will be more difficult for them to perform up to standards in class.

The only way to increase your reading level is by reading, and the best way to get teenagers to read is to turn it into something enjoyable. Reading for fun doesn't necessarily lessen the benefits gained; according to the United Kingdom-based Federation of Children's Book Groups, 59 percent of kids think the "Harry Potter" series, one of the most popular in the world, has improved their reading skills.

Reading shouldn't be a chore, but rather an entertaining pastime and a lifelong hobby.

Isn't the ideal English reading assignment one where a student enthusiastically tears through a book at home, devouring the story, and comes to class eager to discuss what they've read?

This kind of reading experience will never happen for all students if schools only teach "The Scarlet Letter" and "Of Mice and Men."

There's plenty of room for a variety of books in the curriculum; schools simply need to expand their focus.

A hundred years from now, the classics will include books from our time, after all.

Why wait a hundred years to see their worth?

Kalli Damschen is a junior at Clearfield High School. She is passionate about reading and writing. Contact her at

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