Classic or Scrap It?

Exploring the issue with society’s perception of “classic” literature and their place on our required reading lists

In the course of my high school career, I have read about nine books, countless poems and short stories, and three or so independent reading project books for my English classes. 

Reflecting on these readings, however, I have come to realize that there is a problem with some of them: their demoralizing qualities are mistaken for the makings of a classic. Instead of promoting messages and positive role models that students can follow, these books tend to present immoral characters and ambiguous ideals.

Take, for example, 1984 by George Orwell. I am well aware it is considered a dystopian classic, constantly referenced when discussing the action of any of today’s authorities. Considering this, I was excited to finally read it for my AP Lang class.

But, in reading the book, I grew more and more disappointed as I was immersed in a dreary world in which there was no hope for the protagonist, who desperately tries to cling to the truth in a truthless society. He was betrayed and he betrayed others. He faltered and gave up in the face of torture.

For me, this was terrible to read. 1984 gave me glimpses of hope in the moments when the protagonist found love, allies, and bravery. But these were eventually obscured by the gray clouds of defeat, and what the author seemed to be telling me was, no matter how hard you try or what assets humanity has, you will still fail against the inhumanity of corrupt powers. 

Now, books don’t have to have a stereotypical happy ending every time. They can leave you with sad or uneasy feelings. Having difficult endings to stories can also provide thought-provoking discussion, as is the goal of most English classes.

But, “stories are by nature didactic,” as children’s book author Mitali Perkins said. “Didactic” is defined as “intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive,”  by Oxford Languages.

So what did 1984 teach me? Perhaps the importance of who is in charge of writing history, or the slippery slope that is censorship. Or maybe (and this is the idea the book left me with) it was that human nature can never prevail against a totalitarian government. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty messed-up lesson to ingrain in a bunch of high schoolers. 

A similar problem lies in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Taught in schools across the country, it contains thought-provoking, anti-war themes and ideas about predestination and free will. 

However, the book is simply not well-written. Slaughterhouse-Five is written in a non-linear style which only serves to jar the reader from any semblance of plot. The characters are not developed and not relatable beyond displaying the most primal or weak aspects of humanity.

In addition to this, the novel’s only message is that of the meaninglessness of life. It overrides any idea of free will to tell the reader that all life is predestined. 

But rather than putting any optimistic spin on this perspective or simply portraying it as an intriguing idea, it shows us this means there is no point in the actions we take, whether good or bad. Again, this is an incredibly demoralizing lesson, especially for teenagers who are supposed to be the future of the world.

Both 1984 and Slaughterhouse-Five are considered “classics” across America. A classic is defined as “a work of enduring excellence” by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

This has led me to ask, who decides what makes a book a classic? Beyond that, what qualifies a book to be placed on the required reading list? Why do we read the books we do in high school? 

According to the Millard Curriculum and Instruction Facilitator for 6-12 Language Arts, Jan Dahlgaard, curriculum adoption occurs every seven years. Every cycle, teacher teams present potential texts (both fiction and nonfiction) and narrow them down based on a “balance of themes, author diversity, publishing dates, etc.” 

Then a number of people including teachers, community members and administrators, read and review each book on the list. A form is then sent out to those individuals to determine the final books on the list.

This is all a reasonable process. However, after looking at only two examples of our required reading, why are better books not chosen? One of the reasons may be because society does not define the “classics” properly.

Looking at another definition of “classic,” according to reference website, “Classic literature is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. It must be of high artistic quality, at least for the time in which it was written.” 

Just because a book considered a “classic” may have a realistic portrayal of life, that doesn’t give it an excuse to forgo the aspects of “truth” and “beauty.” In addition, being well-written and having “high artistic quality” are positive characteristics of books, but having those characteristics doesn’t make it a good thing for them to instill hopelessness and despair through their message.

So, what can be done about these required reading books? First, understand that I don’t believe that all “classics” should be erased from required reading lists. There can still be benefits from the discussion of their themes and the social and cultural aspects of the time during which they were written.

However, I also don’t believe these classics should be placed on such a high pedestal. The first step to improving our reading lists is considering and acknowledging what these books are actually teaching students as they read them. Do these texts immerse the reader in a negative message about life? Do they promote unethical characters? 

The next step would be to explore new options to start placing on the required reading list. They don’t necessarily have to replace the old books. They can even still be what is widely considered a “classic.” Just to add them on to the list, perhaps in lieu of an independent reading project or set of short stories, would be enough. 

Their requirements? That they are well-written and ultimately end with a message students can truly use to apply to and positively impact themselves and their world.