Don’t Spark It

Not doing the assigned reading has a cost.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Emily Chen

Reading is dying. Nowadays, only 20 percent of teens reported reading a book, a newspaper, or magazine for pleasure. The Stuyvesant English department attempts to expose teenagers to the wonders of reading by assigning classic books like “The Odyssey,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Catcher in the Rye.” However, school assignment directives are no match for Stuyvesant student ingenuity. Many of my peers manage to evade assigned reading by reading plot summaries on websites like Shmoop or Sparknotes. Plenty of students can go through Stuyvesant, one of the top high schools in the country, without ever fully reading a Shakespeare play. They are missing out; classic books provide their readers with insight into the human condition, truths about the world, and most importantly, enjoyment.

The author Jessamyn West once wrote that “fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” This quote applies to all stories, fiction or otherwise. Generally, the greater the story, the greater the truth it reveals. No sophisticated treatise shows the importance of free thought better than George Orwell’s “1984,” whose image of Big Brother’s large mustachioed face epitomizes authoritarianism more than abstract talk about the importance of free speech. This is because stories are the modus operandi of Homo sapiens. They connect with us on the emotional level, the only level that truly matters. Hearing the statistic of six million dead in the Holocaust is intellectually upsetting, but it doesn’t deliver an emotional impact in the same way as the Diary of Anne Frank does. Classic stories tend to communicate through edge cases, the most extreme example of an idea, where its essence can be observed. Shakespeare explores the questions of “What is love?” in Romeo and Juliet and “How can men be corrupted by power?” in Macbeth. J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” captures the nature of innocence. Students can find man’s greatest answers to these timeless questions by reading the great works assigned in school.

Furthermore, classic works provide lost viewpoints from bygone time periods. As the legendary author C. S. Lewis wrote of reading classic books, “Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make the same mistakes.” Our outlook on the world is built on a foundation of assumptions and biases, which unconsciously shape our beliefs and actions. Reading literature from other time periods introduces us to new worldviews. The worlds of Homer and Sophocles emphasize practices and ideas we no longer value, such as the supreme importance of hospitality and honor, as well as their callousness toward our values, such as preventing violence. These ancient values are imperfect, but they show that our societal assumptions are as well. As Lewis wrote, “Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction.” Classic works provide a foil through which we can observe our society and cultural practices.

Finally, classic works can be sources of great enjoyment and fulfillment. For people, stories are synonymous with entertainment, whether they are watching a sitcom or a drama, or hearing the tale of a friend’s unusual day. However, the entertainment in a visual medium is a passive process, with the stories being observed by the viewer. While the words might be on the page while reading, the story is actually constructed in the reader’s brain as they determine what’s occurring. Reading is an investment of attention in creating the story and an investment of time. Even the greatest stories require time to develop the plot and emotional connection to characters, sacrificing instant enjoyment for long term payoff. Even though I had to push myself to read the first 100 pages of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” each page became essential to a full understanding of the characters, and the actors who came to dictate the emotional investment and plot of the story. By the time Kesey reached the shocking finale, my eyes couldn’t move across the page fast enough to keep up with my anticipation. It’s no surprise that students who use Sparknotes don’t enjoy literature; they don’t commit the required attention into the book in the first place. If you decide to invest the attention, a lacking commodity in modern society, and time, great writing will yield great dividends in enjoyment.

Truth and enjoyment derived from stories combine to create the most gratifying sense of satisfaction. These qualities can be found in great movies, television, and music as well, but these works of literature have persisted over the centuries because they do it best. Whether it’s because classic literature is just well written or because the stories connect with some higher truth, almost all great books I have read remain in my mind. For that reason, the true payoff for any classic book lies not in the moment when the reader turns over the last page, but in the period after the book is over and the story is replayed over and over again. So the next time you must decide whether to do the homework or not, decide whether those 10 minutes saved are worth missing out on the “wonders of reading.”