Some online discourses resurface as if on schedule, like an itch that can never be scratched to satisfaction. I’d like to prescribe a salve for one of Twitter’s most obnoxious perennial obsessions: fulminating about the books we were assigned in high school. I’ve been going online to complain about stuff since the first Clinton administration and I’ve been teaching English for seven years, so please trust me when I say that we have to stop doing this. We look like idiots.
While these types of arguments have been around for a long time, they seem to have reached a fever pitch recently, and it seems like every week there is someone online aggressively denouncing a book you may foggily recall from a high school reading assignment.
It’s become a tweet genre, with threads of people calling The Great Gatsby “pointless,” “amateurish trash,” and intriguingly, “full of plot holes.” The Catcher in the Rye commits the sin of having an unlikeable protagonist. Descriptions of the assigning process are graphic and physical. People in their 30s and 40s describe having been “forced” to read, or object to having books “pushed on” them or, in extreme cases, “shoved down their throats.”
Some teachers in these discussions agree, arguing that students respond best to books that reflect their own life experiences, and I can see why; it’s easy to blame a teenager’s rejection of The Scarlet Letter on the book’s publication date, repressed Puritan characters, and alleged sexism. But I’ve always suspected the real problem readers have with The Scarlet Letter is that it asks you to sympathize with characters who behave in unreasonable ways. That book annoyed the hell out of me in high school. I remember wondering, why doesn’t Hester just leave this dumbass town if they all think she’s a whore? Why doesn’t Dimmesdale just tell everyone he’s Pearl’s father? It couldn’t be worse than torturing himself all those years. The simple answer is, of course, because then you wouldn’t have a novel. But the simple answer is also: Because that’s not how people behave. People get stuck in place. People imprison themselves in their own inertia and guilt. And everyone has their own idea of what honor is. This makes for an almost unbearably sad story. I don’t know if that means high school students shouldn’t read it. But I don’t think it’s a tragedy, or even a problem, if a student is annoyed or baffled by a book. It’s not an English teacher’s job to make students love reading; an English teacher’s job is to equip students to read and communicate. When I teach literature, my goal is to give students the tools and confidence they need to attack and write about texts, to “talk to” the text rather than receive it passively.
The classic books’ detractors go beyond saying a particular novel is inaccessible or boring, though, arguing that these books actually “turn kids off” reading forever. But this assumes a tidy cause-and-effect that disregards all the circumstances that create readers and sustain a reading habit: parental attitudes, family wealth, the student’s disposition and other sources of stimulation. Moreover, in my experience how a student processes and appreciates books is a function less of any particular book’s age or content than how the book is taught, or that it’s being assigned and taught in the first place.
For such a heated debate, the problem seems to exist mostly in the hazy memories of grown adults. Is it even the case that high school kids are all reading Hawthorne? If not, what are they reading in high schools right now?
This question is surprisingly difficult to answer. It begins at the state level. The California Department of Education’s website has a searchable Recommended Literature List containing hundreds of titles, from Aeschylus to Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s 2015 YA novel about anti-black police brutality, All American Boys. The New York State Education Department publishes ELA Common Core curriculum maps where Shakespeare, Gogol, Sherman Alexie, and Audre Lorde mix with Newsweek articles and speeches by Booker T. Washington and Malala Yousafzai. In August 2019 Florida’s Commissioner of Education released a list of recommended books touted in a Trumpian press release as “top-of-the-line literary recommendations” and “the best reading list in the nation” whose books “possess spectacular substance that entertain readers with every word.” This in reference to a list that both contains The Vicar of Wakefield and misspells James Fenimore Cooper’s name. (This is not, however, the state’s official list of recommended reading which includes everything from Shakespeare to Cesar Chavez’s speeches).
The federal government and states set curriculum standards, but specific ELA (English Language Arts) curriculum decisions are made by school districts. And good luck trying to find something so simple as a list of approved texts on a district website. Some school websites publish them, but there are 24,000 public high schools in this country and their websites tend to be under-developed. Summer reading lists are easier to find, and the Instructional Supervisor for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the fifth-largest district in the country, told me their list contains some required titles.
But these lists aren’t entirely prescriptive. Teachers often require their students to choose at least one book on their own, a standard practice I remember from high school and, indeed, elementary school. Others find ways around the approved literature list by teaching short stories, poetry, movies, and essays they select. Lauren Monahan, who teaches sophomore and senior English at a San Diego County high school, told me that in between text adoption times teachers at her school can “pilot” books of their choosing and report back to their departments. And while she believes a “powerful” ELA curriculum mixes old, new, classic, and YA titles from authors of diverse cultural backgrounds, she doesn’t accept the idea that old books turn students off reading. She told me, “I get letters every year from former students thanking me for teaching Crime and Punishment.”
While canon formation has historically been shaped by bigotry it is not a fixed thing and people have been working on canon expansion, particularly with an eye to including underrepresented groups, for decades now. The canon doesn’t exist apart from the classroom, hovering as a celestial sphere from which teachers pluck holy ancient texts. It is—as it has always been—constantly shifting, accommodating new texts and quietly dropping others, as teachers decide what to teach and what to skip. So if today’s students are not, in fact, trapped in the musty archival Hell of a classics-only curriculum—and if they’re not reading only novels, but essays, speeches, and poetry—what is everybody so upset about? And why does the “throw Gatsby in the garbage” stuff get louder every year? I suspect it’s because these arguments are not really about what high school students should read; they’re about how these adults feel about their current reading habits. And because some of these Fitzgerald-haters aren’t simply readers, they are Book People.
A reader is someone who is in the habit of reading. A Book Person has turned reading into an identity. A Book Person participates in book culture. Book People refer to themselves as “bookworms” and post Bookstagrams of their “stacks.” They tend towards language like “I love this so hard” or “this gave me all the feels” and enjoy gentle memes about buying more books than they can read and the travesty of dog-eared pages. They build Christmas trees out of books. They write reviews on Goodreads and read book blogs and use the hashtag #amreading when they are reading. They have TBR (to be read) lists and admit to DNFing (did not finish). They watch BookTube and BookTok. They love a stuffed shelf but don’t reject audiobooks and e-readers; to a Book Person, reading is reading is reading.
Book People tend towards anti-elitism born of the belief that any fiction is transformative and redemptive, flattening YA, Middle Grade, sci-fi/fantasy, romance, and whatever we can agree literary fiction is into a single, unquestionably worthwhile genre: The novel.
But with this commitment to generic democracy comes defensiveness; Book People often feel they’re being demeaned or mocked for liking genre fiction or listening to audiobooks. They also tend to buy into the idea that books are a kind of empathy machine—that reading good books can make you a better person—which makes books that explore ambiguous morality nothing short of dangerous. That’s how you end up with long threads of librarians vowing never to read Lolita due to its offensive content, as though to read the book would be to condone child rape by verbose, smug perverts, as Nabokov allegedly does.
The habit of reading became an identity and culture in response to a growing sense—and fact—that fiction-reading is endangered. Indeed, book reading’s popularity declined over the last few decades; TV decimated reading rates at the end of the last century and the percentage of adults who read at least one book per year has dropped 5 percent since 2011, with fluctuations in between. If reading is threatened by our ever-increasing access to alternate diversions, and if the e-reader and the audiobook lure us away from the physical page, then the book-as-object must be made more precious. The bookshelf becomes a shrine, the book a fetish. This could be why those arguing that classic books alienate young readers suggest 21st Century titles as substitutions: if we want to keep the book alive, we have to read, and more to the point buy, the books being produced now.
But let’s not fool ourselves that these conversations are practical. After all, this latest iteration of the canon wars finds a home on Twitter, where Book People, authors who are required by their agents and publishers to maintain social media presences, and academic Book People-—English teachers and professors invested at both the career and emotional level in the power of the book—go to transmute their anxieties and resentments into discourse. This discourse evinces a conflation of both book-reading and online posting for activism; as has been pointed out, the terrible, embarrassing lure of The Discourse is in convincing us that we’re doing something other than what we’re actually doing, which is posting. Our posts do not, it turns out, affect text selection policy even if it feels like they do.
These complaints represent an outsized emphasis on formal education as bestowing all of a person’s ethics, prejudices, and the breadth of their knowledge. But the properly morally-tuned novel taught at the appropriate age and scaffolded with the optimal lesson plan isn’t a bulwark against teenagers becoming racist or hopeless or violent; after all, students leave the classroom and enter the rest of the world, where they’re influenced by their parents, their peers, their experience and the wider culture. And what a relief! Teachers don’t need that pressure. We just figured out how to do custom breakout rooms on Zoom.
Books aren’t holy, and declaring in capitalized, weirdly baroque curse words that you don’t like certain popular or well-regarded ones isn’t particularly scandalous or interesting. They are, after all, just books. Some are great, some are middling, and six of them are by Chelsea Handler.