I believe I owe my high school english teachers an apology.
They sought to broaden my mind with some of the finest pieces of literature ever written. In return, I sought to find new and imaginative ways out of having to actually read them.
I am older now and I suppose a bit wiser as well. And a portion of that wisdom can be directly attributed to letting go of my educationally evasive ways and finally giving the classics the chance they deserve. The five novels shown above; “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, “All Quiet On The Western Front” by Erich Maria Remarque, “1984” by George Orwell, “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck and “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair have all captured and held my imagination in ways that I never previously thought possible. After trying so hard to avoid them, who knew that 15 years later these books would turn out to be my absolute favorites?
I hate to say it, but my english teachers were right and I was most certainly wrong.
But even if I had sucked it up and read everything that was assigned to me in high school, I don’t think I would’ve been properly equipped to truly appreciate them anyways. My teenage mind was too preoccupied with thoughts of girls and basketball for there to be any room for classical literature. I lacked the necessary depth and cultural awareness required to understand the messages woven into these books. And therein lies the real shame, because these books offer to readers timeless lessons that are as true and as applicable today as they were when they were written. I am fortunate enough to have been compelled to give them a second chance, but for others, novels like these remain in an educational graveyard never to be thought of again. These books have the ability to illuminate our understanding of the world around us and it’s truly regrettable that for so many, they exist only as the relics of a long-forgotten youthful curriculum.
So if these books are currently gathering dust on your shelf, here’s a brief explanation of why each of them has something valuable to say about the world we live in today.
THE GREAT GATSBY–takes a long look at wealth, ambition and moral decay as they relate to the American Experience. The book’s title character, Jay Gatsby, is a true example of the self-made man. But for all of his accomplishments and materials possessions, he is still unable to attain his true desires. He is forever chasing happiness in the form of Daisy, the object of his affection. Gatsby’s earnestness and virtuous plight is contrasted by the hollowness and indifference of the society into which he has been elevated. Those who surround him care only for themselves and the wealthy lifestyles that define them. Gatsby ultimately falls short of his dream in tragic fashion.
Our world today is set up to condition us to believe as Gatsby did. We are led to believe that success and happiness can be achieved through self-determination and a relentless pursuit of wealth. The individualistic ethos pushed by the far-right and the corporatist class has produced a culture brainwashed to worship consumerism and to reject the value of the common good. Our world fills us with desires to be rich, while those who are, have lost all concern for those below them. Fitzgerald’s descriptions of a society filled with inequality in the 1920’s has incredible parallels to the wealth gap and decay that exists today. Fitzgerald wrote, “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”. In our materialistic world of bail-outs and selfish ambition no truer words could be spoken. The Great Gatsby provides a brilliant illustration of what happens when a world, such as ours, has truly lost their way.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT–quite simply, gives full voice to the horrors of war. The book follows the experiences of a group friends in the German Army during World War I. Not a single line of the book is wasted on romantic notions of heroism or glory, instead we are given an honest portrayal of the brutality, pointlessness and long-term effects of war. The book describes in grisly detail the way soldiers are robbed of their humanity and become either fresh-meat for the unstoppable war machine or numb, lifeless relics unable to re-enter normal society. The author focuses on the empty value of nationalism and how citizens are conned into believing that war has purpose. We also get to see the brotherhood that grows between soldiers after all other forms of human emotion and interaction are stripped from them by the blood-thirsty leaders that have betrayed them.
American men and women are currently engaged in conflict all over the globe. Our media and government urge us ad nauseum to ‘support the troops’, but we live in a world where it is deemed cowardly and unacceptable to insist that these men and women might be shown true support by being spared of the horror and brutality of war. We send young boys and girls to die in foreign lands without being asked to sacrifice ourselves. All Quiet On The Western Front should be read by any person who blindly advocates for war without considering the true cost on the lives of those who fight it. Militarism has become the religion of the United States and our society has become callous to its effects. This book is a striking reminder that the violence of war not only kills and maims, but also has a deteriorative fallout on the country that supports it.
1984–is a bleak glimpse of life under an omnipresent totalitarian government. Every aspect of life, including work, language, home, sex and recreation all fall under the absolute power of The Party. The book’s main character, Winston Smith toils under this oppressive regime and struggles not only to remember a brighter past, but also secretly fights against the power structure to regain merely a shred of his individualism and independence. The novel exposes the methods that totalitarian regimes use to control their citizens. These methods include psychological manipulation, constant propaganda, intrusive technology, and restrictive control over all information. It is a world where The Party retains its power by imposing absolute limitations on its citizens’ ability to even conceive of an alternative state of being.
The dark and sinister world portrayed in 1984 could easily be dismissed as a hyperbolic expression of government power. But just because our world can’t match the same level of manipulation and despair, does not mean that many of these totalitarian devices don’t already exist. Our oppressor is not a singular entity such as The Party, instead it is a collection of government agencies and huge corporations that strive to develop complete control over our finances, our thoughts, our beliefs, our consumer habits and our ability to act autonomously. We live under a government that is rapidly expanding its ability to eavesdrop on its citizens and that same government is masterful in the way it uses propaganda to spread fear and animosity towards foreign enemies as a way to wage war. Our information is controlled by a corporate-owned media that has no real regard for facts or the truth. Our politicians and leaders are allowed to express dishonest and contradictory statements without being held to account. We’re led to believe that capitalism allows us freedom of choice, but those choices are always dictated by a small list of companies whose only motivation is profit at our expense. The connections between our world and the world in 1984 are subtle and are intentionally obscured from our minds, but they exist and are constantly growing nonetheless. 1984 offers a wake-up call to readers and urges them to examine and scrutinize those that wield power over them.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH–is a novel highlighting the struggle between rich and poor, landowner and tenant. The author contends that the misery and misfortune of the one is directly caused by the inhumanity of the other. The book tells the historical tale of families from the dust bowls of the midwest who were pushed off their land and forced to head west in search of work, land and a sliver of hope for the future. Their journey is a combination of blind optimism and enduring hardship and despair. Once in California, the family joins the ranks of thousands of other dispossessed families and realizes that their visions of a brighter future were all an illusion. The trend of exploitation continues as the landowners of California seek to protect their own power by treating the migrants like animals, using their desperation as a weapon against them and ultimately turning them on each other. The novel is a study of the hardships of class warfare, but also a contemplation of the value of family and the bonds that are formed by those who retain the value of humanity in the face of insurmountable sorrow.
The class struggle of The Grapes of Wrath is true for all societies throughout history, but it is especially germane to our recession-ravaged lives today. We may not be forced to live in camps and asked to toil for merely pennies per day, but workers everywhere still feel the pressures of exploitation from the ruling classes in a variety of ways. Our world today still lacks the altruism and kindness that is required so that everyone can enjoy a happy life. The families in the book are perplexed at the notion that able-bodied humans who want to work and eat and live are somehow denied that opportunity. Our country is currently filled with unemployed and dispossessed people who are still perplexed by that very situation. The desperation of the characters in the book is also matched by an underlying anger. That same anger exists today. The Grapes of Wrath is a fantastic handbook for how and towards whom that anger should be directed. This book is a wonderful reminder that family, love and people should always come first.
THE JUNGLE–is often incorrectly thought of as merely an expose of the turn-of-the-century meat packing industry. It is more appropriately described as an expose on the failings of the entire capitalist system. The novel features the lives and trials of an immigrant family that settles near Chicago as they optimistically pursue their vision of the American dream. Over time, that dream is shattered by the realities of the cold-hearted and ruthless nature of capitalism. The family is exploited, chewed-up and spit out by the profit-hungry machine. Their belief that hard work and honesty will eventually bring happiness is dashed by a never-ending cycle of abuse and debasement at the hands of not only those who reign over them but also by those who are competing alongside of them as well. The novel is a critique of capitalism and takes the position that despair among the working class is an unavoidable product of the system’s ultimately selfish goals.
Although our country has progressed past the era of 14 hour work days and the sale of contaminated meat, capitalism still exacts its toll on those who labor under it. The Jungle is a terrific illustration of just how far we have come, but it is also a reminder of how much misery still remains. The merciless extraction of labor from those with no other options still exists in this world, if not here in America, then in other countries where social advancement has yet to take hold. Products, especially food products, are still made not so much for the benefits they offer the consumer, but for the cost-effective benefits they offer to those who sell them. We’re still taught to believe in American Dream. We’re still taught to believe that all you need to thrive is the will and determination to make that dream a reality. The Jungle presents to us in unrelenting fashion, the abundance of holes that are forever woven into the fabric of that capitalist dream.
There is no way that all of these lessons could have carried the same significance if I had experienced them as a teenager rather than as an adult. I feel silly for at one time being so adverse to the world of reading and classic literature, but at the same time my tardiness has afforded me new insight. I could have given these books the chance they deserved in high school, but that chance would have forever classified these enduring works as nothing more than annoying stepping stones of my educational past. My high school english teachers were indeed right, the value of these books is immeasurable. But I am glad I resisted. Instead of being musty tales of times long-forgotten, these books are now an important part of who I am and what I believe. They’ve broadened my horizons and shaped my understanding of the world. And if I’m not mistaken, that seems to be the whole reason why they’re assigned to us in the first place. I should still get credit for figuring it out, albeit fifteen years too late.