I’ll admit, I’m not doing as well as I had hoped in the reading challenge. I’m currently in the middle of a Dickens novel and some nonfiction by Chesterton, which I’m enjoying, but feel like I’m getting nowhere fast. It doesn’t help that I’ve read an embarrassing number of the Sandman volumes (a graphic novel series by Neil Gaiman) in the last two weeks and the pile of unread classics on my bookshelf stares at me, silently judging.
Oh, I’m also reading Frankenstein for school (as a teacher) and Piers Plowman for class (as a student). I’ll finish the former this weekend and the latter at the end of the semester. But Frankenstein doesn’t really count since 1. I have to read it and 2. I’ve read it about a bajillion times.
But still, there are interesting little alterations in my reading already. When I began the Dickens novel, The Old Curiosity Shop, I found that I didn’t have any trouble with the language. No muddly moments of re-reading long sentences to figure out what on earth is happening. No adjustment period of getting used to the 1850s writing style. I just started to read. It actually surprised me out of the story about a page in.
Now, I brushed this off. The Old Curiosity Shop feels less dense than Frankenstein or Two on a Tower, and maybe that, coupled with the fact that this is one of Dickens’ earlier novels (and therefore the language is maybe simpler? I don’t know) is why it felt easier, more intelligible, by comparison.
Then I picked up Romeo and Juliet. It’s on my list of books to consider forgiving, and by chance this awesome webcomic I follow is doing an adaptation of the play. I decided to read along, slowly. She posts about two scenes a week, or less.
Guess what? It was “normal,” too. I hesitate to say easy, because it is Shakespeare; easy is Twitter posts and early readers. But again, there was no adjustment period, no feeling of walking into a foreign city and being overwhelmed.
The reason for this, I believe, is familiarity. Like someone who visits a city in a foreign country, the first visits are strange. The essentials of every city are the same: streets, buildings, people, vehicles. The order and intelligibility are not. Some are more foreign than others. But if you visit that city frequently, the strangeness wears off. Not entirely, but enough so that you aren’t confronted with it constantly. You have become familiar with its own quirks and aren’t thrown by them anymore. You might even be able to give directions.
I keep one ear occasionally tuned to the literature-in-the-classroom debates that are occurring constantly. One common complaint is that students find classic literature “too hard” and thus do not engage with it. Therefore, people reason, we should teach contemporary fiction that is exciting and engaging and understandable. While I don’t totally disagree with this feeling, as I, too, have gazed out at a classroom full of blank, bored faces, I don’t think less classic literature is the solution.
I think we need more. We need to make the pool of classic lit an immersion pool – you know, one of those that has a long, slow slope like a shoreline. A child who has read Howard Pyle and Rodger Lancelyn Green and C.S. Lewis and Edith Nesbit and Lewis Carroll and L.M. Montgomery will find Dickens and Hawthorne more intelligible, and the student who can understand Dickens is one step closer to understanding Shakespeare. What if literature were taught this way?
The idea of beginning the classics early exists already in any number of schools. Is there an intentional progression of difficulty in the language, though? Do we tell the fourth grader working through Pyle’s archaic language that this is preparing them for Milton and Austen? Do we tell them the reading gets easier as time goes on? Do we help them see the truth of that statement?
Maybe if we talked about Shakespeare as someone worthy of working towards instead of an almost-insurmountable challenge, if we saw Dickens’ paragraph-long sentences as a delight instead of a burden, if we treated the classics in general as a delight instead of a burden, things would be different. What things? I don’t know, world things.
If nothing else, take this truth with you: the books are hard because they’re old, but with a little time and patience they’ll become old friends, and cease to be hard.