Sunday, May 3, 2015

Don't Sleep on the Classics

Now that you're safe from the grueling reading activities of high school English classes, consider giving the classics another try. ♦
Students everywhere remember it all too well. They get the reading list for an English class in high school and see a novel from a classic author.
    “A Tale of Two Cities…?” they would groan. “Why do I have to read about something so old? There is no way this is still relevant today.”
     Many students had to struggle through novels like Grapes of Wrath or To Kill a Mockingbird in their formative years. But I pose a question: Why was reading these classics of the English language such a chore for kids growing up? Perhaps the pages and pages of reading reports they had to complete or those dreaded speeches in front of the whole class where they were scared of tripping over their own tongues created an aversion to reading classic novels. Reading felt like a chore rather than a pleasure.
   I, for one, loved reading those novels. Sure, the reading responses were tedious, and I definitely didn’t love getting in front of the whole class and being forced to speak for seven to ten minutes. The history and beauty of language are what got me through presenting my findings on southern culture and situational elements in To Kill a Mockingbird, or analyzing symbolism in Les Miserables. The work was a pain. The reading was an adventure.
     It’s a shame that young readers, and particularly those nearing or still in their college years, shun the classics and stick to reading more modern or recent novels. The stories may be more directly relevant and relatable to a contemporary audience, but most lack the artistry and brilliance that make a classic novel so universally lauded. The Twilight series has sold over 120 million copies worldwide, but it is definitely not a triumph of the English language (I got through maybe fifty pages of the first book). But the series has sold that many copies for a reason. Today’s young readers can simply do better; they can learn more about the world and how it has grown and become the world of today. That being said, allow me to give a few recommendations of some classic novels that are not only considered masterpieces, but will remain glued to the reader’s hands until they are finished.
    For the casual reader, or the fallen-away reader, a collection of short stories is a great way to become engrossed in a story without the commitment of a 700-page behemoth. There is nothing quite like opening a copy of Oscar Wilde’s Short Stories and getting lost in his lyrical mastery of the written word. His style is almost sarcastic in most instances, with biting commentary on human relationships and institutions that often leave the reader thinking, “Ah-ha! I see what you did there!” His stories also often take the form of a sort of “adult fable,” making them both easy to follow and very fun to read.
    For those interested in taking on a longer piece, look outside of England and the United States and maybe delve into classics from Russian or French authors. Period pieces can provide some of the best stories out there. I am not saying to go out and buy a copy of War and Peace, even I had trouble getting all the way through that one. But The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky did not get the credit or attention it deserved in the English classroom, and despite the complexity of characters and plot, provides a great story of the social and political climate in those days in Russia. Moving on to France, Les Miserables is a classic that was recently brought back to the fore with a critically acclaimed screen adaption, but The Count of Monte Cristo or The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas are two more exciting adventures that grab the reader and make it hard to put them down.
     My last recommendation is a simple one. Go back and re-read a novel that was required in a classroom setting. Dust off that old copy of To Kill a Mockingbird or Animal Farm and read it purely for the story. Not only will the experience be much less stressful (no page count deadlines to meet by Thursday!), but also the deeper messages and symbolic elements will come back to you as you read, giving you understanding on a deeper level. Another great way to re-experience a novel is to see a movie adaption and then go read the book again. It is always fun to see what the screenwriters saw as important and what they felt was not as essential in their final cuts, and reading the book right after seeing the movie gives another layer of understanding. I did this when the most recent version of Les Miserables came out in theaters; seeing the movie in live action and then re-reading the book made the whole experience that much more meaningful, and painted a whole new picture in my head while reading.
     If I can leave you with one thought, it’s this: read everything you can, read outside your favorite genre, but also read outside your time period. Finish the newest James Patterson thriller, but maybe consider something from F. Scott Fitzgerald next. You may be surprised what you find in the pages of a classic tale. So read everything you can, but don’t sleep on the classics.
  • About the Author
    Ricky Modrzynski, 22, was born Polish-Catholic in New Jersey many years ago, but has spent the majority of his formative years south of the Mason-Dixon line. An avid hockey fan, he has played the sport since age seven and is the reigning champion of his fantasy hockey league. In his free time, he enjoys annoying his roommates with his guitar, destroying the kitchen on a daily basis, and having as much fun as possible.

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