Opinion | How much do classic novels actually have to say?

By Leah Mensch, Opinions Editor

I absolutely could have gone my entire life without ever reading “Moby-Dick,” but unfortunately, I have read it. Twice. I’ve had to read it twice. 

I can trace it as far back as middle school — the teachers’ desire to aggressively push classic literature on students as much as possible. And it makes sense, in some ways. There are perks to being well read — a more robust vocabulary, mental stimulation, concentration and understanding of literary references in the world. But at the same time, being well read doesn’t necessarily mean reading classics solely for the sake of reading classics. Especially when many of the mainstream classic novels have unaddressed racist and misogynistic undertones.

This isn’t to say that these classic novels serve no purpose in curriculum or in the literary world — classics are, in many ways, vital to a well-rounded education in literature. But so are pieces of contemporary literature and books from centuries ago that haven’t been coined classics. There’s a fine art to incorporating the classics. So yes, there’s room for classic novels. But right now, there’s too much room for classic novels. 

Classics challenge our reading, thinking and comprehension skills in different ways than contemporary literature does — the language and syntax are different than they are today, and, thus, we have to process the text differently. This is why they aren’t always the most exciting or engaging texts to read, but it’s also why they have an important place.

There are also many modern sayings that come from classics — like “Big brother is watching,” from George Orwell’s “1984,” “Tomorrow is another day,” from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” and “Hey Boo,” which originally comes from “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It’s worth something to be well versed in texts that have made an impact on the construct of modern day language. But at the same time, when classic novels are put on syllabi or inserted into high school curriculum, said novels should be selected with care — not just selected because it’s “what everyone in the field reads” — which yes, has been said to me before.

The conversation often leaves me thinking about Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” which is a novel that seemingly everyone in the literary world has read, though none of us can figure out why we had to. The book, which was written by a privileged white guy, is a story about imperialism, colonialism and what happens when “civilized” people leave society. It often feels racially charged, and the story is told through the lense of white British men paddling down a river. Nobody can actually agree on what the plot is, and the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe famously deplored the text as racist.

Many modern day literary scholars agree with Achebe. Achebe’s classic, “Things Fall Apart,” is also a novel that critically tackles the topics of colonialism and imperialism, but in a much more assertive way. This novel seems to be less commonly taught than “Heart of Darkness,” but it’s the better option. 

I often think of the ethical implications of teaching texts that have racist, misogynistic and patronizing undertones. Some of them are important, but I think we need to ask ourselves a few critical questions before choosing certain texts, like — can another text be taught to make the same point? Are there other texts that tackle the issue more ethically? And, how many works of a certain author who has an aggressive reputation — like Ernest Hemingway — need to be part of the curriculum or reading list? 

I don’t have an answer to these questions. But if we decide to teach texts with problematic themes, then the themes need to be addressed and discussed, rather than dismissed as something that was “typical for the time period” — even if they were. I’m thinking specifically of the anti-Semetic undertones in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” Hemingway’s misogyny and the blatant racism in beloved books like “Gone With the Wind.”

And as far as contemporary literature goes, there seems to be a notion that it doesn’t offer as much wisdom and has less value and, therefore, we can’t learn as much from it. I’ve found this to be most untrue. Pitt’s writing program requires a course in contemporary literature for graduation — which is to say, it is in fact important. After all, we tend to learn best from things that we can connect to, and contemporary literature is often the most relatable. And though it hasn’t had the time to become a classic, the structure and syntax holds its own. It’s different from classic work, but it’s not less valuable.

My favorite literature classes that I’ve taken as a student have combined everything — from memoir to fiction, from ancient epics and classics to contemporary essays and nonfiction — when it’s all there, I feel like I learn the most. For children, specialists often recommend exposure to a wide variety of styles and genres in literature in order to enable them to experience different ways of saying and writing about the world. It’s important for teenagers and college students to see everything offered as well. Not just contemporary writing and not just classic writing. 

So let’s take a step back from the classics. We think that they’re pushing us forward, when, really, they might be standing in our way. 

Leah writes primarily about books, writing and the spices of the world for The Pitt News. Write to her at [email protected].