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The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

The student news site of Francis W. Parker School

The Parker Weekly

Classic vs. Contemporary Literature

Classic+vs.+Contemporary+Literature
Photo credit: The Parker Weekly

Uma- Contemporary

My hands were shaking, speechless syllables forming on my tongue as I closed the book and tried to wrap my mind around this 336 page rollercoaster that had just come to an end. “My Broken Language” (2021) by Quiara Alegría Hudes was, to me, a resounding revolution formed of indescribable craft and beauty. I had never seen myself, nor the world, with more clarity than at that moment. Quiara was the first biracial protagonist I’d read, and her memoir took me on a journey of profound introspection. 

I could say so much more, but I know you’re not here for a book review. My point in bringing up the work of Hudes is the tremendous effect that contemporary literature has had on me. I have grown so much as a thinker, learner, and human due to the voices of contemporary authors. The English department should incorporate more contemporary texts into their curriculum to ensure a more relevant, efficient, and meaningful experience for students.

Throughout my ten years at Parker, I have been exposed to many great voices in literature, but the ones from which I have found the most personal growth are works of contemporary literature. They are a reflection of our current world and, therefore, provide for a multidisciplinary study of the text. Contemporary literature often begs for a discourse that is sociological in nature. In contemporary literature, the words truly transcend the page, leaving the reader with a practical use for the text and room to reflect on its current-day impact. 

Contemporary literature starts conversations about complex and current issues that aren’t commonly discussed in classic literature. I’ve read contemporary literature that tackles themes like teenage pregnancy, police brutality, racism, terrorism, and immigration, to name a few. All of these books have given me the space to deeply consider these topics. By putting pressing issues within the backdrop of a fictionalized yet realistic setting, contemporary authors facilitate a broadening of the reader’s perspective.

Last year, in Ms. Zeller’s class, we read “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) by Mohsin Hamid. It was narrated from the perspective of a protagonist who smiled when he saw the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. After reading this passage, I felt disgusted. But once I’d finished the book, I began to understand where he was coming from. Reading this book and other works of contemporary literature have made me more understanding of people with different perspectives and experiences.

While classic literature has addressed controversial topics, it has often done so in terribly offensive ways. In history, literature mimics the popular interests of its time period. Classic literature reflects the perspectives of historical people, however, these historical people were often bigoted, and classic literature reflects that bigotry. “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1884) by Mark Twain is a widely celebrated work of classic American literature. The White author includes the n-word 219 times over the course of the book. Sejal argues that reading these perspectives, though offensive, is important in order to “educate us against those behaviors.” To that, I’d say that instead of reading a classic that’s chock full of hate speech, I would rather read a work of contemporary literature that dives into the history of the n-word and its impact today. If the goal is to “educate us against those behaviors,” then the latter is far more productive. 

Additionally, classic literature is very one sided in terms of the people it represents. Arjun Kalra published an opinion last month entitled, “More Dead White Men.” It was a case for the study of classic literature at Parker, and the title that he chose perfectly encapsulates the overwhelming lack of diverse voices in classic literature. Classic literature has been dominated by white men because they were the ones with the most power and access to printers. Now, this is shifting as there are an immense number of contemporary books that are written by women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. 

The omission of diverse voices within classic literature robs it of the true depth of experience. By repeatedly reading classic literature, you are fundamentally placing yourself in the perspective of people in power (in most cases). I’ve learned that it’s far more impactful to read a book from the perspective of an oppressed person because through this you can understand the experience of the oppressed as well as the actions of the oppressor. This concept was introduced to me in Ms. Gibson’s class. 

In eighth grade, we read “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” (2007) by Sherman Alexie. This was the first work of fiction I’d ever read by a Native American. The book was an awakening because it gave me an understanding of the reality of living as an indigenous person in 21st century America. My prior exposure to Native American fiction was the Pocahontas myth and other such falsified and incomplete stories by white men. By repeatedly consuming literature from one perspective, you acquire an inaccurate and incomplete understanding of the situation.

A major roadblock that I’ve often encountered when reading classic literature is its lack of readability. Classics require much more exertion on my part in order to get to the crux of the author’s message. Reading a book should not be an exercise of endurance or frustration. However, this is the cycle that I find myself stuck in when reading works such as Shakespeare’s plays, “Pride and Prejudice,” or the fabled “Odyssey.” The feelings of disorientation and resulting anger kill my enthusiasm for the text. 

On the other hand, works of contemporary literature are written with contemporary readers in mind. We don’t have to decipher another language in order to understand the text. While classics require an unnecessary amount of time spent deciphering, contemporary literature cuts to the chase. This isn’t to say that the analysis of contemporary literature doesn’t require deep thinking and reading of the unsaid, but at least there isn’t the added difficulty of comprehending the words on the page.

And finally, reading a work of classic literature just because every high schooler reads it is a stupid reason to study a book. Books that cease to be relevant and beneficial shouldn’t be taught just for the sake of teaching it. Teachers shouldn’t waste students’ time with classics from which they gain nothing. I hated Homer’s “Odyssey” because I didn’t see what there was to learn from reading it. It was repetitive, redundant, and irrelevant. Even though we did learn about the Hero’s Journey, I believe that the true journey of a hero isn’t exemplified in the “Odyssey.” Reading the “Odyssey” felt like an undeserved glorification of white mythology, which is why I wish the text could’ve been replaced with a thoughtful work of contemporary literature. 

At the end of the day, it’s really about the books that you choose. There are good classics, and there are bad classics. The same goes for contemporary literature. While I believe that contemporary literature should be more prevalent in the curriculum than classics, every student and teacher has their own preferences. As long as the curriculum is engaging, provoking, and growth inducing, I completely support it.

 

Sejal- Classic

Classic literature illuminates our past and present and paves the way to our future. Without it, we would lose valuable aspects of literature, such as deciphering language, applying archetypes and tropes, and exploring societal shifts throughout time. 

As a society and as a school, we must read more classic literature. This is not only due to the learning we can get from it but also due to the complexity of language, the classic stories, and the tropes that are forever present in literature. Uma argues that classic literature can be offensive and biased, and I do not disagree. Some pieces of literature fundamental to the development of our literary world have themes of hatred. However, disregarding those works is not the correct solution. Reading (in moderation) texts that are outdated and perhaps even offensive helps to educate us against these behaviors. If these themes are addressed appropriately in classrooms, it can lead to insightful and necessary conversations. After all, how can you fix errors if you don’t face them? Should our curriculum focus primarily on contemporary literature, we will be overloaded with socially acceptable solutions but no clear cut example of a problem. 

I believe that classics from the 20th and 19th centuries are overlooked. I will admit that I do not enjoy reading ancient classics nearly as much as I do classics from the last few centuries. I agree with Uma when she says that one upside to contemporary literature is the ability of the reader to relate to the characters. However, I often find myself relating to characters in classic literature as well. In Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground, I found myself contemplating the ways in which I related to the Underground Man, an 1860’s middle-aged man living in Saint Petersburg, Russia. His philosophical ideologies regarding existentialism and the purpose of his life were exquisitely frantic. Though I may not have as morose an outlook as his, I certainly understand his viewpoint. I’ve found that through classic literature, readers are able to find pieces of their own identity in characters from the past. 

While Uma may argue that the language used in classic literature can be convoluted and distracting, I would like to once again mention the vast scope of literature considered a classic. While Shakespeare’s English may not be engaging to some, we as readers must challenge ourselves with complex language and sentence structure in order to grow our skills and abilities. Furthermore, I refuse to allow Shakespeare to be dismissed entirely! Without it in the curriculum, what would we know of iambic pentameter? How would we grapple with soliloquies? What would we make of a sonnet? These things, though confusing at first, are fundamental to one’s understanding of the beautiful fluidity of the English language and must be central to our curriculum. 

Now, I will admit that “The Odyssey was boring. I scribbled meaningless annotations all over Emily Wilson’s margins minutes before class started. I rolled my eyes at the trite missteps of Odysseus and thought nothing of the famed “Hero’s Journey” trope unfolding before me. However, complaining about “The Odyssey to my mother, who also read it when she was 16, made me feel as though I was like high school students before me. Personally, reading a book “just because every high schooler reads it” is reason enough for me. I love turning pages, knowing that many years ago, someone my age turned those same pages and maybe even had the same observations. Although not every classic work resonates with every reader, the shared experience of engaging with them across generations has a unique value. As for “The Odyssey itself, not every classic has to be three-thousand years old. I would consider F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to be a classic, and it was published just under a century ago.

Finally, where would contemporary literature be without the classics? By taking focus away from classic literature, we are ripping out the very foundation of our written world. Margaret Atwood, a very famous contemporary author, got her inspiration for “The Handmaid’s Tale” from George Orwell’s “1984.” Without the work of Orwell, we wouldn’t have other dystopian novels. Classic literature is overlooked and underappreciated, and it deserves a greater presence in our curricula and on our bookshelves.

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About the Contributors
Uma Morris, Features Editor
For her Junior year, Uma Morris is thrilled to be this year's Features Editor on "The Weekly." After publishing her first article at the start of her sophomore year, she fell in love with pitching, interviewing, and writing for "The Weekly," and she looks forward to being a part of the editorial process! When she isn't grinding out articles at 1:00 in the morning, you can find Uma reciting her poetry (on stage as well as in front of her bathroom mirror), singing in grape jam, or sitting on the soccer bench :)
Sejal Ahuja, Online Editor
Sejal is thrilled to spend her second year on “The Weekly” as an online editor! In between uploading articles to the fabulous Weekly website and writing articles of her own, she enjoys reading, listening to music, and watching movies. She is also head of MX communications, and a Mock Trial head.