For those who haven’t seen it, the My Cousin Oskaar video is an annual classic when it comes to Daylight Savings Time. I’m a few days late, I know, but it’s one of those videos that just never gets old. Please go watch it and then cackle over Stallone with me.

Speaking of classics …

It’s funny to me that in high school I enjoyed the language of Shakespeare but very much hated the language of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote in much the same linguistic era – the linguistic in/formal thee vs you dynamic is one of the things I remember – and the descriptions were florid, and the emotions everyone had were dramatic, and it was a big thinky piece about Sin and Blame and Revenge, and yeah, they made a modern film based off it with Emma Stone so apparently it’s still relevant today. Cool. Neato. If it were rewritten today using modern language, I might like it very much, because the themes are interesting and the characters are interestingly flawed (except for Hester, who … didn’t … do anything wrong? At all? if I remember correctly. She just slept with the wrong man). But the language is so excessive that it interfered with the reading experience for me. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it felt like wading through hip-deep mud just to get to the dang plot. And given that a lot of my classmates reacted the same way, I’m led to believe that if the novel hadn’t been branded as a classic, it would probably fall to the wayside.

Not so with stories like The Crucible. I read The Crucible in the same class where I read The Scarlet Letter, and while I didn’t like the first act at the time because I felt the plot was moving too slowly (that turned out to be a Bored Teenager lens; I think the first act is pretty interesting now), the rest of the play practically reached out and grabbed me. Abigail was one of the most compelling antagonists I’d come across, and the messy complicated nature of John Proctor was something I could sink my teeth into. I remember picking one of Abigail’s monologues to do an audition for the high school play that next year. The language is just archaic enough to remind you that the play took place in the 1690s, but it’s fluid enough to still appeal to a modern audience (and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be translated heavily like Shakespeare sometimes is).

Whereas The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s and … hmmmm … doesn’t really have much of an excuse? Especially when you take other books written in that same time frame like Les Misérables (published 1863) – which, while astoundingly verbose, still managed to be compelling and not clogged up with archaic language.

Honestly, sometimes I think the board of education sits down and determines the reading requirements based on what makes you sound snobby and pretentious, rather than what’s actually enjoyable to read. And before you start bemoaning the Uncultured Youth for their Potter and Tolkien, maybe take a hot second and think about whether you’d rather force someone to read something practically illegible (and enforce reading as a chore), or have them read something fun and thought-provoking (and encourage reading as a hobby).

Oh, and Tolkien’s been a little more of a cultural influence in the past fifty years or so than Hawthorne has, I’ll bet. Take that, elitists.

Literary v. Genre Fiction – Fight!!

Sometimes literary works (I mean literary in the sense of “described as a classic in English high school classes”) can be interesting. And I suppose as someone who’s trying to make a living out of writing I should be more defensive of literary works. But I confess: the only assigned book aside from Shakespeare that I really enjoyed in high school was Catch-22, which is about as vulgar and silly as a literary book ever gets. I would much rather read a million books about dragons than ever read The Scarlet Letter again – and, of course, there were precisely zero books in the curriculum that included dragons. It feels like the people who sit around deciding what books children ought to read in school specifically choose them for their dull qualities.

Is that true? Maybe. I enjoyed English classes in college a lot more, partly because I got to choose the type of English class. But I maintain the position that the way we study things as “classics”, and sneer at genre books, is … kind of detrimental, actually. Tolkien and Harry Potter deserve to be examined with the same care as F. Scott Fitzgerald, with regards to the craft as well as their impact on our culture. Does a book have less worth because it appeals to a wide variety of people? Tell that to Shakespeare, who was the very definition of wide appeal in Elizabethan England. His popularity with the unwashed masses is the only reason we still know his name today. To study his work for his literary skill is a good thing; we can learn from him. But to hold him up as the pinnacle of literature! universal! et cetera et cetera ad nauseam! doesn’t make any sense. (For more reading on the “universality” of Shakespeare, I recommend reading Shakespeare in the Bush.)

Literary works have their place on the bookshelf, certainly. After all, I wrote my senior thesis on Les Misérables, which is probably one of the biggest literary novels in French. But I think that looking down on people for reading genre fiction is essentially telling them “no, you shouldn’t enjoy reading, you should wade through this difficult bog of prose so that we can give you a gold star.” It seems counter-intuitive to me.

What books were you forced to read in English class that made you want to throw up through your nose? Or conversely, what books were you forced to read in English class that you actually enjoyed? Tell me in the comments!