From Science to Shakespeare

So I realized that I have been discussing all the reasons people should read and some information about studying literature, yet I never explained my personal experience in the matter. As a kid, my mom used to read to me. I read the typical kids books like Dr. Seuss but my absolute favorite as a child was Jesse Bear, What Will you Wear? and Baby Beluga. These were rhythmic books where it almost seemed like a song while reading. I still to this day can recite all the words to Baby Beluga. As I got older, I obviously got into more advanced books to read, bouncing hReadingere and there from series to series. To be honest, I don’t really have any extremely memorable chapter books that I can say changed my life as I usually always read for pleasure. When I was done with a book, I would pop on to the next one and the next. Though I cannot pinpoint every book I read, I can say that I was always reading.

My best subjects throughout school were always English (obviously) and math, so it came as quite of a shock when I decided to pursue a science degree for my college career. I had always had a passion for animals, bringing home every stray that I could get my hands on and begging my parents to let me keep them. Being a veterinarian then made sense at the time. I decided to pursue my degree at SIUE in biology with a minor in environmental sciences. My first semester, being a late transfer, I wasn’t able to get into any of the introductory courses for the biology major so I took a chunk of my environmental classes. I enjoyed my semester and got straight A’s (I’ve always been an over-achiever at school). My second semester came along and I signed up for all the bio classes. It wasn’t long into the semester for me to become completely miserable. I dropped out of most of the bio classes, keeping the bare minimum to stay enrolled as a part-time student. I ardently researched various majors at SIUE, desperately trying to figure out where I would fit in.

Finally, I thought I had it figured out. I met with the School of Secondary Education within SIUE determined to become an elementary school teacher. I mean, it made sense. My mother has been a teacher for over 25 years, though she was a college professor. I always enjoyed school, so why not be in school forever? After meeting with the adviser for the program, he told me the requirements. I eagerly nodded and picked out my schedule for the upcoming semester. “Now you have to pick a minor as well,” said the adviser. “Let’s take a look at something that interests you in the list here.” He pulled out a long list of minors. Though I had already started the environmental sciences minor, I wanted no part in the sciences due to my terrible meltdown giving me a trauma against them.

“What about the English literature minor? I was actually an English Litt minor back in the day and got my masters in it,” he suggested. I looked at the required classes for the English minor and agreed for that to be my new minor. Finally relieved of the misery of biology and science, I left the office with an exasperated sigh.

Later, I was preparing to officially enroll in my classes. So many of the education classes had prerequisite courses that were all full so I was very limited on what I could take. I began perusing the English classes for the new minor. There were classes like Detective Fiction, Creative Writing, and even a whole course dedicated to Harry Potter. It was hard to choose my favorites. I wanted to take them all! A crashing epiphany hit me. If I was getting so excited for the English classes, why not major in that?

I didn’t want to be stuck with an unusable major after graduation. After all, most English majors are stereotypes as automatically wanting to be teachers. I wanted to make sure I had options. A quick Google search of what careers were open doors with an English major solidified my decision (check out this link for a list if you are curious). My first semester as an English major was even more satisfying. Now I am graduating on May 6, 2017 and couldn’t be happier.

While I took the long road to find out what I wanted to do, I couldn’t be happier with where I ended up. I joke with everyone that I made a total 180 with my decision of starting as biology and ending in English. I am not saying that EVERYONE should become an English major, because I’m not going to lie, it’s actually really hard work. I spend a much longer time on my homework than when I was taking those environmental classes on behalf of all the reading and writing. However, sometimes my homework doesn’t feel like work. I enjoy writing and, most of the time, I love the novels that are assigned. Switching to English honed my passion that I had all along from my childhood and made me love what I do.


Why the Classics are Still Important

In high school English classes, the students groan when they here they are assigned reading that is old-school. Shakespeare, Dickens, and many others are at the bottom of most people’s reading lists. Books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are all the rage. But why aren’t people still interested in the classics? Why don’t they get excited to read them like they do when the latest bestseller is announced? My guess would be that people dislike classics for two reasons: the language used and the fact that they are set in old time periods. I will agree that, yes, the language of Shakespeare is a little difficult. However, reading plays like Othello and The Tempest will definitely prove worthwhile when you see some of the reasons classics are still important to read and relevant to today’s culture just as much as now.

1. Challenging Language Challenges the Brain

So, again I repeat, yes, the language can be difficult. But did you ever think that it could make you smarter? Reading these classic novels expands your vocabulary which in turn can actually increase your intelligence (see blog post “Why Should You Read?” for more information on this). Also, there is research to suggest that reading classics extends your brain about as much as solving a moderately difficult math problem. For those who hate math, pick up a classic instead so that you can use the same amount of brain power with way less stress!

2. Classics Provide Historical Context and Culture

While reading a history book spouting facts sounds insanely enticing, a literary classic will give you context with an awesome story to boot. Let’s take a quick look at Dickens with Great Expectations (the novel I actually did my senior seminar project on for my undergraduate degree). Dickens is demonstrating the clear class divide in England with Pip being a commoner destined to be a blacksmith and the beautiful Estella who is upper class and cold. Estella repeatedly mocks Pip for his common ways when both of them are children that Pip aspires to become a gentleman of the upper-class. He finds that being upper-class isn’t all it’s cracked up to be once he gets a mysterious benefactor that allows his dreams of money to be a reality. As readers of classics, we can see what was going on in the time of England during the 1860’s when Dickens wrote the novel. Let’s not shy away from the fact that some of this is still relevant today. Ever heard of the American Dream where anyone can be anything if they put their mind to it? Well, Pip puts his mind to it and tries so hard to become someone he is not that he almost ruins friendships along the way. I’m smelling a good moral lesson here.

3. The Classics Art Art

Whether you were a groaning student or an excited one (like I was) when classics were assigned, they are still art. Novels and poetry may not be scribbled with colors and beautiful shapes, but they are enriching in a different sort of way. Art inspires emotion and, if you’re really engaging in literature, it also engages your emotions. Allowing yourself to really open up to a great novel or even a poem will give you a sense of appreciation for that writer and, hopefully, a new appreciation within yourself. Art is about discovery and adventures within the soul. If you’re actively engaging with the art that’s right in front of you, you will feel some type of way whether that’s anger, sympathy, or happiness. Now, I’m not saying that every book is going to give you the willies, but that’s were the discovery part comes in. Try a classic out. If you don’t resonate with it, try a different one. Regardless, you still learned a bit of the history even if you didn’t feel emotional with it. You learn what you like and don’t like.

With all of this being said, I need to address that classics, to me, aren’t just the authors I talked about above. There are a wide array of classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (pictured below with my awesome new typewriter) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Classics aren’t just the old white guys from hundreds of years ago. The idea of what constitutes as a classic is something that I think about often as an English major. In fact, I was just discussing with some of book nerd buddies what the future classics will be. I’m sure Harry Potter will make the cut because of the insane phenomenon surrounding it. This type of thinking begs the question of what modern novels really capture our culture and history as 21st century-ians. So, while you’re reading the classics that are already considered classics (seriously, just a GClassic Picoogle “list of literary classics” and you have a ton to choose from), you can ponder what modern novel represents you!

In the Know About the Canon

When us literature junkies start talking about the canon, it sounds normal. We all nod and know exactly what is being talked about. To someone who doesn’t religiously bury their nose in books digging up every possible meaning, metaphor, simile, historical reference, and who knows what else, the canon is just something on a pirate ship that goes boom! (See canon picture below. Photo credit by Niki Busler of Once Upon a Design) But, unfortunately, that’s not what the canon is in literature terms. It’s much less menacing and violent.Canon

Let’s do a little background before we really get started getting the skinny on what the literary canon is all about. Back in the day in Greece, there was instrument called the kanôn which translates to “straight rod,” something that was used during construction for surveying. It’s the concept of measuring that was appealing in using this Greek word for our purposes in literature. Our modern form of the canon is similar but in reference to measuring and surveying literature.

In high school and many college literature classes, I’m sure your teachers have stressed the importance of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Dickens, and many other influential writers. All of these writers make up the literary canon which then refers to a means of measuring other works of literature to a certain standard, skill, and value. Okay, seems simple you say. Well it isn’t really as easy as chalking it up to certain individuals. In literature, we accept what the canon is, but there is movement and upheaval to change the outlook and perception of the canon. What do all of the writers I mentioned have in common? If you guessed “they’re all a bunch of old, dead, white dudes” then you guessed correctly. The “traditional” literary canon seems dated and not nearly as diversified as the world we live in (i.e. tunnel vision). If literature and writing is supposed to express emotions and experiences and invoke political/social changes, then considering only one group of people relevant or as “the standard” doesn’t really do much good, does it? Pushing to expand the canon to include ethnic and gender diversity will not only broaden our horizons of perception of certain issues/emotions, etc., but it will, in turn, make literature more interesting and engaging. Not everyone can relate to Romeo or Juliet being in a forbidden love. Or being an orphan taken in by thieves only to find out that you really come from a decent background with a bit of money involved like Oliver Twist. By widening our look at the canon, we can include authors like the Bronte sisters, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ralph Eillison, Richard Wright, and SOOOOOO many others.

Reality check here: if students think that the standard and value of writing is that of Dickens, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, some writers in which they have trouble even reading, then they are going to think their own writing is inadequate or that all literature is “hard” and they cannot connect with it. In a nation where 32 million adults are illiterate, the last thing we want to do is scare them off to trying to delve into some good literature. I am not saying that the classics aren’t important or not worth studying (NOT SAYING THAT AT ALL!!!), I am just saying that they shouldn’t be the only pieces of literature that we consider high class and valuable.

On that note: stay tuned for next week where I talk about why the classics ARE still important (and no I won’t just be talking about the old, dead, white dudes).