What To Say When Your Students Hate A Classic Book

Feb 9, 2017

On occasion, students (or the teacher) simply hate a classic text. Despite noble efforts to the contrary, the teacher cannot bring them around to it. The last page is finished with a groan, the book slammed shut with disdain, and the class declares the work a waste of time. In such moments, the teacher must act and speak decisively. He cannot say, “Win some, lose some,” and go on to the next book. He must defend the value of reading the book.  

When the class hates a text, the teacher ought to say something like this:

“Reading a classic ought to be a profound experience. I wish that reading this book had been a profound experience, though there’s no point in pretending you all liked this.

Hopefully you can name a few classics which have been of profound spiritual value to you. Perhaps after reading The Consolation of Philosophy, you were able to confess some sin to your parents, or yourself, which you did not previously believe you had the courage to confess. Or perhaps you have recalled the struggles of Odysseus to return home and understood your own reticence to return home on a Friday evening.

Perhaps a certain classic work has put you into blessed, consoling communion with the ancient things of man. And yet, perhaps there are some classics which you simply do not enjoy and do not gain from. Perhaps these classics seem especially long, and every day you loathe coming to class and discussing characters and ideas and creeds which are foreign to you. The plot seems to move forward arbitrarily, the concerns of the author seem either too esoteric or too pedestrian. It is a great relief to you when class ends and I have not assigned reading homework. Reading is not physically demanding, and yet we have all known the despair which attends being forced to read even a single chapter in an unreadable book.

When you finish the unlovely classic, the stupid classic, the incomprehensible classic, and the time has come to set the book aside, you may be tempted to throw the book aside in frustration. You might be tempted to say, “This was a complete waste of time. I learned nothing from this. I could have been reading Boethius or Jane Eyre again, and it would have been time better spent…”

If this school burned down tomorrow and all the books were destroyed, I would simply pantomime giving you the books in the Canon, and tell you to pretend to give them to your children

There is, however, another reason we read classics, and I suppose it has very little to do with our moral and spiritual development. We also read the classics—even the classics we hate and which profit us nothing—for others, for those we have never met.

Let us say you loved Boethius, but not Bede. Let us say you loved Augustine, but not Chrysostom. Let us say you loved Frankenstein, but not Dracula. Somewhere in the past, in another school and another time and another country, someone like yourself was forced to read Boethius and hated him. Someone was forced to read Augustine and hated him. Someone was compelled with the threat of bad grades to read Dracula and loathed every florid, Romantic page of it. The classics you love are in your hands today because students before you— many of whom did not understand them, and did not profit from them— read them anyway and vindicated them as part of the Western Canon. There are times when reading the classics does you real spiritual good, but there are also times when you read the classics for the benefit of those who will come after you. Your reading of difficult, uninspiring books is pure self-sacrifice. You do not understand why the world needs Dante (whom you can’t stand), you do not understand why the world needs St. Anselm (who is impossible), but the same teachers who put Augustine (whom you love) in your hands have insisted the Future needs Dante and Anselm— and if you don’t read Dante and Anselm, there’s a real sense in which you don’t get Augustine.

You see, on one hand tradition is very powerful. It holds great sway over our imaginations and much like gold or bread, man seems to have an inborn, God-given respect for it. It is for this reason that we treat forgers and heretics with such disdain— they prey not simply on men, but on civilization itself, for civilization depends on a shared respect for the things of God. On the other hand, however, tradition is very weak. Tradition has creative power, but not coercive power. Tradition has no platoons, no divisions, no cannons. Tradition is empowered by the imagination, and if the people have no imagination, they will have no tradition. Tradition is the language of the Dead, and imagination is a knowledge of how to speak this language. All of the books in the Western canon are like a dictionary of the Dead. The books of the Canon hold together in the same way all the words in a dictionary hold together and depend on one another in an immeasurably complex tapestry of meaning. Without the word “labor,” the word “work” becomes harder to understand. Without the word “value,” the word “money” becomes harder to understand. Abandoning Boethius means that Jane Eyre becomes harder for the Future to understand. Abandoning Augustine means Mary Shelley becomes harder for the Future to understand. Some of what the Dead say makes sense to you, some of it does not. If every generation is allowed to pick and choose what parts of the message of the Dead they like, very quickly the message of the Dead will be whittled down to nothing. You will strip a few books out, your children will strip a few books out, and a century from now there won’t be anything left. Once the classics are dropped from the Canon, they do not go back in. The tradition of the classics is like a game of telephone. You must simply pass on what you hear. In a game of telephone, the message cannot simply skip one player and then get picked up again later. If one player blows it, it’s blown for everyone else, as well.

Obviously, we do not have time to read every book in the Western Canon at this school. This is beside the point, though. When I give you a classic, I am giving you a belief, a way of life, a way of interpreting and entering the world. The reasons I give you these books are just as important as the books themselves. In a sense, the reasons are the books and the books are the reasons. If this school burned down tomorrow and all the books were destroyed, I would simply pantomime giving you the books in the Canon, and tell you to pretend to give them to your children, and perhaps by God’s grace we would someday have real books again. I am not only here to give you the books. I am here to give you a desire and respect for the classics which transcends your own ability to enjoy them. It is honorable to read and enjoy classic works of literature, but it is even more honorable to not enjoy them and read them anyway. To enjoy what you read is submission to pleasure, but to finish reading a classic you can’t stand is to give two mites out of your intellectual poverty.

On behalf of my great, great grandchildren, whom I will never meet, thank you for reading classics that you don’t like. Because you suffer through them, others who love them will be able to read them. Because you have endured the backbreaking, blue collar labor of slugging through hundreds of pages of what seems incomprehensible drivel, others who come after you will know the Truth.

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs

Joshua Gibbs teaches great books to high school students at Veritas School in Richmond, Virginia. He is the editor of FilmFisher and has two daughters, both of whom have seven names. You can find him on Twitter @joshgibbs. 

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