The Exceptional Hero's Journey: What My Bookshelf Has Taught Me About Classic Literature
As I rapidly approach the end of my senior year, I am closing out my high school reading curriculum with The Iliad for my Greek mythology-based English class. Which is a hefty book to squeeze into my bookshelf reserved for all assigned texts from my English classes. The Iliad will join similar titles, such as the brother poem The Odyssey, Medea by Euripides, and two-thirds of the Oedipus Rex Trilogy by Sophocles. But it will also join many modern novels, like Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, even a few movies, and Hadestown, the musical by Anais Mitchell. Overall, most of the books I’ve been assigned to read were published after the 1970s.
In fact, less than half of my required readings for classes have been “classics.” And, just for clarification, I typically define “classics” as books that would be typical texts in an (American or British) English curriculum, regardless of time frame. Shakespeare, Jane Austen, the Brontës, etc. Generally, I consider classics to be pre-twentieth century, with modern classics being popular twentieth-century novels like The Great Gatsby, To Kill A Mockingbird, or The Jungle. Or, anything published by Penguin’s Classics, to be honest. If you need further examples, Goodreads has a whopping 1,771 books considered "Must Read Classics," which, of the top 20, I have read four. Four books I have read for class because I typically don’t reach for classics in my “for fun” reading (see our post on rom-coms for the importance of “for fun” reading) no matter how much I try.
Regardless of where or why I read classics, I still feel the need to read them. I will be headed to college next year for (probably) an English degree, and I have this debilitating fear that I will be publicly heckled for my lack of Shakespeare in my repertoire. But, in all seriousness, is a 37% classics rate enough to launch into higher education? Will Jess Mariano be at the doors of my English 101 class, waiting to wittily belittle my abilities? As I previously said, I don’t read many classics in my own time, so I find myself wishing there was some higher power forcing me to read a couple of them.
Somewhere in my late middle school years, I took it upon myself to become this higher power and went on a campaign to read classics, so all of my future teachers and classmates would think I was “smart” (Are you picking up on a theme, yet?). So, I picked up Lord of the Flies and The Hobbit, then promptly put them down. The language was weird, I hated the font in the book, and I had no teacher to walk me through the difficult parts. Where I did strike it lucky, though, was with the American sweetheart of books, The Great Gatsby. It took several chapter re-reads and hours on SparkNotes, but I finished Gatsby and could give you a thorough walk-through of the plot. The commentary on American society and capitalist values that I would become incredibly familiar with in my junior year, though, was lost on my twelve-year-old mind. But, in all my Gatsby success, I had lost all motivation to read outside of class. If all “real” books were this difficult to read (and, frankly speaking, this boring, to my young self), why would I read, when I could watch hours of YouTube videos instead?
Then, in my early high school days, I rediscovered that reading modern books and young adult novels didn’t make me stupid. Actually, they are quite helpful in terms of education and mental health. (Seriously, who knew? Young adult novels are written for young adults!) The books I was reading outside of class were more than achieving their function. I was having fun in new worlds, connecting to storylines very different yet very similar to my own, and I was subconsciously expanding my vocabulary, grammar, and interpreting skills. Yet here I am, turning back to the same transitions in life, and therefore, the same fears of inadequacy, particularly in my reading habits.
Luckily, I have several friends who read the way I want to. Fellow senior Jillian actively seeks classics out, with better results than me. She chases classics for their plotlines, as she “feels all books and movies today have the same storyline, and [she] wanted to see where those storylines came from.” She told me that while she doesn’t enjoy every classic she reads, she does love reading them; her notable favorites are The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale.
Interesting plotlines aren’t the only positive to reading classics, though. When asked about what makes her gravitate toward classics, my friend Theresa said, “A lot of modern books are about action or finding the next high; we are addicted to what keeps our attention. Classical books set their own pace. Even though they are slower, a lot happens in a classical story, which stems from attention to detail.” Which, in my experience, checks out. I remember bonding with Theresa when reading Her Voice At The Table’s beloved novel Jane Eyre during our sophomore year because we, like Jane, were scared, insecure teenage girls. As most fifteen-year-olds are! Theresa remembers Jane Eyre, and some of her other favorite classics–Anne of Green Gables, Persuasion, and Little Women–as “gentle,” giving a different aesthetic than modern books typically offer.
Besides the relatability of Jane Eyre, the classics I’ve read for class have had inherent value to me. In my freshman year, I learned all about the hero’s journey. Jonathan Swift taught me what satire was, a priceless lesson considering the political era I would come of age in. I adored the drama of Sophocles and Shakespeare and learned all about Macbeth and Oedipus’ respective falls from grace. And while my reading of The Odyssey was obstructed by early quarantine mandates, it fostered my love of Greek history and even inspired a re-read of Percy Jackson, which was a lovely return to innocence alongside the daily walks and many coloring books that I committed to in spring of 2020.
It was in the fall that the reality of COVID would hit, and in my Female Voices class, I would find comfort in teenage girls of different eras, from Antigone to Jane Eyre to In the Time of the Butterflies to Persepolis. And the general consensus was a.) we have big feelings about ourselves and b.) we are mad at our worlds. It was comforting to know that teenage girls had always been frustrated, and slightly concerning that half of those girls would end up dying for it. It was solidarity, nonetheless. It made me feel like I was part of a bigger story than the issues I was facing. Continuing with this bridging of worlds, my Junior year American Lit class taught me that the “American Dream” was mostly just a dream, not a reality. There has always been literary push and pull around the nation, from The Jungle about industrialization and workers’ rights to The Things They Carried about Vietnam war veterans.
My high school years are bookended by Homer; as I previously mentioned, my senior English class, dubbed “Gods Behaving Badly” after one of the modern texts we read, is currently trenching through The Iliad. But even in this ancient-minded class, we have only read two classics this year (The Iliad and Medea, if you are curious) among modern retellings or interpretations of Greek mythology. I do find these classics to be some of the most valuable texts I’ve covered this year— they slide perfectly into conversation with classics I’ve read earlier in my career and hold a thematic pillar of this class: human nature stays the same.
Which is the end-all-be-all of studying classics. Yes, we study the intricate language, narratives, and patterns in classics, but most modern novels have rhetorical
meanings, too. What is unique about classics is that they allow us to discover how much has changed while ultimately staying the same. During our study of Medea, my classmates and I (and our teacher) were constantly comparing Medea’s rage to Taylor Swift’s lyrics, as she has an entire album dedicated to the destruction of the old to get revenge and, ultimately, find new peace. Classics are valuable, but they wouldn’t hold any value without their modern counterparts to chronicle our modern approach to life and human nature.
In contrast to “Gods Behaving Badly,” I am also taking a class subtitled “Schrodinger’s Cat,” where we focus on a large variety of texts from a large variety of places. The only work we’ve studied that encroaches on classic territory is Jorge Borges’ Ficciones, a collection of short stories from Argentina. We’ve read about metaphysics, original and retold fairy tales, apocalypses, dreams, and time. The overarching lesson is: life is weird, lean into it.
Which feels impossible to learn without the use of modern texts or “foreign” classics. Strangeness cannot be learned without breaking away from the typical curriculum, from the ideas and novels we consider “normal.” Of course, classics have importance and a significant place in academia—they wouldn’t be so popular if they didn’t. But that importance shouldn’t undercut the value of modern books, and therefore the forward motion that comes with them.
So yeah, I want to read more classics. And there’s probably some pretentious jerk out there who will think he’s better than me because of his familiarity with Orwell and my lack thereof. But I don’t think I should have read more in high school. Or that I should force myself to binge through a hundred classics this summer. That’s not fair to the novels or myself. Having time and patience to expand a text with friends or mentors is the best way to interpret classic novels. If I rushed myself or conformed to fit some outdated idea of intelligence, I would have lost out on my learning experience with modern novels and non-Eurocentric classics. I would never have gotten the opportunity to lean into the weird, the unknown, or even the inherently human patterns that cross any length of space or time. Reading is the exceptional hero’s journey that anyone can take– why not discover the newest path of that journey?
Phoebe White is a high school senior who adores late-night coffee, fine-point pens, and spends far too much time on Spotify.