Observations on teaching old books to young people


I FIND it very ironic that many young people of today find it so difficult to engage with any literature that was written before the 20th Century. The irony exists on two levels. The first has to do with the fact various literary eras (Victorian, Medieval, et.) are a part of the origins of what we write and study today in the modern world, and there is much to learn about current literature by looking back at where it came from, how it developed, and who its main proponents were. Pre-20th Century literature, for this very reason, forms an important basis for many literature/writing curriculums in universities and schools all across the world. One of my favourite books of all time, “Wuthering Heights,” the only novel by Emily Bronte, is a sensual and sensational read, a novel that is brilliantly written, a miraculous work of art, and yet, there are many people in the world who would refuse to read it on the grounds that it is an ‘old’ book and, therefore, somehow too difficult to engage with.

The second bit of irony that I associate with young people not wanting to read old books is that many young people are religious, subscribing to religious norms, beliefs, and expectations that have been preserved for thousands of years as literature, stored in books. I will never be able to comprehend how people will wholeheartedly read from the Bible or the Gita or the Quran while refusing to pick up anything by Dante or Homer or Wilde. In a way, there is as much to learn from reading books about the world we live in, with characters and situations faced by people just like us, as much, in fact, as there is to learn from the religious texts.

The grudging demeanour that manifests itself whenever young people are confronted with old literature can be easily witnessed in most classrooms. Introduce them to Shakespeare or Christina Rosetti and there will undoubtedly be a loud groan or some seemingly compulsive comment about why only boring books are studied in school and why can’t there ever be anything fun, like “The Hunger Games” on the syllabus. It is both an endearing as well as hilarious moment in the classroom that I always think back on weeks after this initial introduction, after the students have been sucked into the text. I do not doubt that the issue English teachers suffer with the most is the one that has to do with making students interested in reading those books published pre-20th Century. Currently, I am teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” a classic that was published in 1850 – so I do understand the struggle of having students engage with a novel that might seem, at first, to be far removed from their lives, their environment, and their experiences.
I think the first thing that needs to be conquered when students are working with a text is the language barrier. Writers from different periods use language in different ways. This is reflected in the Old English of “Beowulf” or the Shakespearean dialect of the Bard, or even the way Hawthorne uses long, flowing sentences, dense with imagery and meaning.

Unpacking a linguistic style from what they are used to can be difficult for students – but it is a situation that they definitely need to overcome, because, to understand the story they need to understand the language in which that story is written. Whether it by using a side-by-side translation or teaching students how to break apart long sentences to capture the meaning so it can be distilled into a few words, there is no doubt that getting students over the language hurdle is the first step towards making students enjoy old works of literature.
The barrier also has to do with the fact that students are, in the initial stages, usually unable to relate to or connect themselves to the characters or scenarios presented in a work of literature that was written hundreds of years ago. Because they are unable to relate, they are (unsurprisingly) unable to become invested in or care about the work of literature. Step two, therefore, is showing students how to make those necessary connections between themselves and the book – and rest assured that the connections are always there, since literature is about the human condition and truth and love, all themes which transcend time. So, when reading about Hester Prynne being shamed at the scaffold for having a child out of wedlock in “The Scarlet Letter,” the student may, at first, be resistant towards this conservative Puritan society, but if it is pointed out that slut-shaming, the poisonous intersection between church and state, and regressive roles for women, are all themes which exist in both the novel and the modern world in which the students live, then the story will altogether become more interesting.

The third and final step has to do with showing students how an old story can help to resolve modern day issues. After the connections are made and students become more interested, then revealing to them the purpose of literature becomes important. This is where students are able to move from being able to read a specific kind of literature (overcoming the language barrier) to enjoying the reading of such literature (being able to relate to the text) and then, finally, to understanding how to use the literature in real life (knowing the importance of the literature). The question now becomes, how can old literature help to solve modern problems? For example, how might Shakespeare’s poetry help in the championing of LGBTQIA+ rights? What might Charles Dickens “David Copperfield” have to tell us about modern day class divisions by highlighting class divisions in Industrial-era London? How might Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” suggest about how little the treatment of native peoples have changed throughout the years? The insights earned, the analysis made, and knowledge gained through such interrogation is what constitutes literary study – and without it, reading is an exercise in seeking entertainment through words, which is enough for some people, but for students it should not be. Older books have a wealth of knowledge to offer to the young people of today. The onus is on them to reach out and take it.