From High School English, to Real Life Reading
Who cares about Homer? Why would someone take the time to absorb Shakespeare? These are questions that seem to be a symptom to a larger problem. There is a severe lack of emphasis on literature in the k-12 system and in the United States in general. Millenniums of collected knowledge and culture exist, for the most part free of charge, but America seems bent on letting us lose it all.
I took AP english in high school and I took a few college english courses as well, but when I had finished those classes I never once took up The Iliad, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, Hemingway’s short stories (or Chekhov’s for that matter) and God forbid, Shakespeare. This is coming from the son of a Shakespearean college english professor. Indeed, most of the people I meet today, both student and professional alike, started their journey with literature and ended it just as quick after school.
But why? Well, there are as many reasons why as there are people to ask, but an underlying theme that I have found in them all is sheer disinterest. The material is boring, or hard, or long, or all three, and when we go into the classroom, the only reason we get for reading literature, is that it is literature, and we should read it. I think that the material being boring is only a symptom of the greater issue: educators are not effectively communicating why we should read.
Why is it important for educators to communicate the reason for reading? Because literature, and the act of reading it, teaches us more about ourselves, about the human condition, about life, then we could ever learn in school. For example, Shakespeare’s ability to read you more than you can read him, and teach you things about yourself you didn’t know existed is remarkable. You can read Hamlet or Othello every year and have new emotional experiences with the text each time.
How can the educators help the problem? I believe that they need to make the information more accessible, more engaging, and more critical. It only takes the first ‘Aha!’ moment to get you hooked on literature, but getting there is the difficult part. I will never forget the week I finally forced myself to give literature a shot and realized that literature is not just a bunch of gentlemen standing around in a dusty room doing nothing, but the most entertaining experience of my life. Not only are the stories insightful and emotionally compelling, but they are entertaining as well, and educators need to communicate this to their students.
Until there are significant changes in the educational system, there is still the matter of reading in the real world. School is supposed to just be a platform that prepares you for jumping into the real world, but if the enjoyment of reading literature is not in place by the end of high school, it is unlikely to ever be there. But for those people reading this who are no longer students, and have never given literature an honest try, I want to tell you that it is not as difficult as it seems to start reaping the benefits of literature.
How can you get started on your literature journey? The best place to start, like so many things, if from the beginning. In Western literature, that would be Gilgamesh, the story of the hero king who raises cities and destroys ferocious monsters. After you read Gilgamesh, you can hop on over to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, then to the Greek tragedies, like Oedipus Rex, Antigone, and Medea. From there you can move on to Plato and Aristotle, then on and on to Shakespeare and beyond (here is a good literature timeline). The reason it is good to read these works chronologically is that it shows us how humanity’s values have changed and stayed the same throughout time, and knowing that, we can fully appreciate and understand what is trying to be communicated in more modern works of literature.
This has only been a brief introduction to the importance of literature and reading, but I hope to post more articles soon exploring some actual methods of understanding the literature you read and how to get the most out of it. If you are interested in seeing more articles like this, please let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any specific questions regarding getting started with literature, you can leave it in the comments as well.
Thank you for listening, and I hope you start your journey soon!
To contact Caleb, please click here to visit his blog.