Homeschool Survival Guide: Literature
By Andrew Jones
Picture a pile of dusty old literature classics on a shelf. What sane high schooler is going to see that stack and say, “Hand them to me. That’s so my kind of thing”? Okay, maybe there’s some, but I’m guessing a lot of you would just toss them in your trash can and go back to playing “Video Scrolls VI: Flashing Colors on a Computer Screen”.
Thankfully, I can assure you one fact: classic literature is not as scary or futile as the ancient-looking book covers straight from the Vatican’s secret army of two thousand immortal book-spinners make it seem. In fact, old literature is usually kind of awesome. Whether you enjoy reading it as much I do, the fact stands that some homeschool high schoolers are going to take Literature – also known as [Well-known country] Literature, History of Literature, and Outdated Words Appreciation – as a course during one or more more semesters. Thankfully, I’m here to help, and I’ve compiled a list of useful tips for not throwing your dictionary through the wall.
1) Speaking of dictionaries…
Always have a dictionary on hand when reading the great classics of our time. It’s said that a language becomes completely unrecognizable from its original form after 300 years. So reading something from 100 years ago, you’d expect it to be only ⅓ unrecognizable, right?
Well, actually, it’s pretty easy to understand literature from 1910… as long as you understand the sesquipedalian language they use. Thankfully, there’s an easy way to solve this: get out a dictionary or just google “sesquipedalian definition”. Viola! Instant history buff. Also, this gives you an ancient word likely thought up in a back room at Oxford University to use in conversation so that you can feel smarter than your friends.
2) Don’t be intimidated by classic literature
When I first started reading Beowulf during high school, I was warned that it would be confusing and difficult. However, I found that to not be true because there are some things that are universally understood and universally awesome, like slaying giant fire breathing lizards and admitting you only lost a dare because you had to fight off underwater beasts.
Here’s another one: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Even if you haven’t read it, you’ve probably heard of it. A story about a boy, Huck who, like his friend Tom Sawyer, is always breaking rules and annoying parents, something modern teenagers may sympathize with. Later in the book, he helps slave Jim escape his slave owner and retreat to the north where he can live as a free man. Yes, the book preached against slavery and racism. Pretty common… except that it was made in the late 1800s when slavery was commonplace.
Old literature is just awesome, and there’s a lot of books that laid the foundations for modern stories. Of course, which ones you read depends on what course you take, so there’s going to be a few in there that are just boring to you. The ones involving dragons being slain will make up for that, though. Promise.
3) Find a translation, use Sparknotes
Even when glued to a dictionary using super-strength adhesives, some books are just so classic that they’re incomprehensible and alien to all modern readers except that one guy on the History channel.
Thankfully, all classics (that I’m aware of) old enough to confuse a fifteen year old have at least one version you can read online or rent from the library in which the vocabulary and grammar have been updated to no longer be recited during new age incantations. Sure, they’ll still be dense and involved (unless you get the book from the kids section of the library), but at least they’ll be legible.
Another useful resource for understanding books made before your grandmother was born is Sparknotes. It’s the best free study guide for classic literature I can think of. From Canterbury Tales to The Scarlet Letter, Sparknotes has synopses, character descriptions, plot overviews, theme and analyses, and pretty much any other information an expert could squeeze out of a well-known book. I recommend reading the Sparknotes pages for each piece of literature you’re assigned alongside it. It’s a really helpful site!
Anyway, that should be enough advice to get you through Obligatory Literary Studies. Remember that classic literature is an integral part of our culture. By reading it, you not only enrich your life but open yourself up to conversation with the many other people that have taken part in reading these books. It’s undeniably an excellent course to take, and I’d recommend it to everyone.