A reader asked me to recommend some titles from classical literature for her nephew in middle school who, fortunately, loves to read. I sent her some titles, and got to thinking about the concept of “classical” literature. I, of course, am a fan. But why should we have our kids read things that were written centuries ago in language that is practically foreign to them today.
It’s called “classical” for a reason. It is usually timeless literature about wonderful stories written in beautiful prose about universal themes.. Sometimes the language is difficult: The Scarlet Letter, for instance, as much of Hawthorne, is filled with challenging vocabulary. And that is one of the reasons to read it. Our students are expected to have a literary vocabulary in order to do well on tests like the ACT and SAT. The easiest way to develop that vocabulary is by reading the books from which these words came. It’s much easier to develop vocabulary contextually than to memorize a “bunch” of words and definitions.
The prose in most classical literature is beautiful. Those authors knew how to write, to use precise and varied words, and to create images that make the content completely accessible to the reader. Sometimes it’s hard because syntax may be different from modern syntax. But there’s nothing wrong with hard; I tell my students all the time, if it’s easy then they already know it, and if they already know it, I’m not doing my job. Meeting challenges is one of the best ways to feel good about ourselves, to build our confidence.
Here are some suggestions for some great books for your middle school and high school students. The list is by no means complete; but it is a start. Anything from Steinbeck, Hemingway, Faulkner, Twain, Dickens, Orwell, Poe, London, Harte, Swift, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin. Also books like Bless the Beasts and Children, The Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, The Time Machine, Death Be Not Proud will provide provocative and fulfilling reading experiences. Don’t overlook short story collections either; short stories can be a less intimidating introduction to the classics.
I’d love to hear about some of your favorites and will include the suggestions in future articles. In the meantime, consider a family reading event over the winter break.