Let's play a game. A game called "One change you'd like to make to a classic book you love."
I'm sure we all have at least one aspect of our problematic faves that we wish were different. Even if you can accept most of the values dissonance from its time period and other things that make other readers despise it, there can still be one aspect that you think has little or no redeeming value whatsoever, that genuinely detracts from your enjoyment of the book, and that you'd change if you could.
These are the changes I wish I could make to each of the classic novels I'm either currently reading or have read within the last year. They're not the only aspects of the books that I don't care for, but if I were allowed to make just one change to each book, these would be my choices:
Jane Eyre: Make Bertha European. She doesn't have to be English, she can still be a foreigner (French, Italian, etc.) to explain why no one in Rochester's circle knows about her or knew when they were married about her family's genetic madness. But not a Creole from Jamaica, with all the othering and racist implications thereof. She's problematic enough as a monstrous portrayal of a mentally ill person without all that baggage.
Wuthering Heights: Omit Cathy II's cutting Hareton with her whip and Hareton's slapping her. If they're supposed to be the book's healthy couple in contrast to Heathcliff and Cathy I, who end the cycle of abuse and who create a redemptive ending, they would fill that role better if they were never physically violent with each other.
Little Women: Have Jo still writing at the end. I'm not saying that she needs to have published her own version of Little Women yet, as in the adaptations – great literary success can still elude her. But I'll admit I don't care for the fact that the book ends with her having given up her writing career, however temporarily. Especially because most people don't read the sequels, so they don't know that she eventually becomes a famous author. To free her up, I'd omit her two sons (they'd still eventually exist, but not be born until Little Men), and I'd have her still publishing her poems on the side while running the school with Friedrich.
(Actually, this might be my second choice of changes: the first might be to omit the brief yet less-than-flattering descriptions of Jews among the foreigners Amy meets in Europe. But if the one change I chose had to be directly related to the plot, it would be the above.)
I'm sure I'll think of others as I read and reread more books.
Does anyone else here have any examples of their own? I'd love to hear them.
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Blog: What TAB Has Taught Me (So Far)
In the beginning of seventh grade I made a reading list. I had always made reading lists. They gave me comfort, something to look forward to, and made me feel like I had options. This reading list was a little bit different from the past though. This time I opened up my mom’s laptop and typed,
“Best classic books to Read.”
“Classic Literature to read in Middle School.”
I decided that the way to be a good reader was to read quote unquote, “classics.” I thought that was what separated a “normal” reader, from a “good” reader. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because when we are young we don’t really understand the nuance of what makes a book truly a masterpiece, and so we rely on others. Mostly it was because I loved reading and learning, and I heard this was the best way to do it. I did read some fantastic books: A Tale of Two Cities, The Good Earth, Black Boy, Sense and Sensibility, to name a few. And I thought for a long time that this was the only thing that mattered about reading: picking “hard” books.
Fast forward. Somewhere around mid-January my podcast buddies and I interviewed an author named Phil Stamper. The book he wrote was firmly YA. It was a true bildungsroman romance, complete with running away from home, friend drama, social media commentary, and young love. It was a short, easy summer read. In seventh grade, I would have read this book as a guilty pleasure, and then returned to Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou and the like. But as I interviewed this author and sat on Zoom with my new found friends talking about the intersection of the LGBTQIA+ community and mental health, the nuance between healthy and unhealthy relationships, and the effect of community and connection on one’s sense of belonging, I discovered anew something that I had already been feeling all year with TAB; YA is a huge genre with room for hundreds of thousands of unique stories that address heavy, nuanced issues. Through the podcast we have discussed YA books about the Holocaust and World War Two, Black Lives Matter and Juneteenth books, literature about Mental Health, and so much more.
Here is how TAB has opened my eyes to a fresh respect for YA lit, and reading in general:
It is incredibly Expansive: within the TAB book club we have read an apocalyptic fantasy, a mystery about lynching, a magical realism about Native American mythology, and a fluffy summer read about romance during prom season, to name a few. YA is not limited to fantasies about dragons, cheesy vampire books, or summer romances. Within this genre is anything that relates to the experience of growing up, finding oneself, and navigating a world meant for adults when you’re not quite a kid anymore. That can lead to vastly creative and unique stories told through fascinating lenses.
It is urgent that we Support YA: I don’t think I truly grasped the need for focus and resources in publishing to center on YA until the TAB podcast discussed Concrete Rose. Within the conversation we had enlightening revelations on the importance of showing young fatherhood, the way that postpartum depression is often left out of teen pregnancy stories, and the way that race and economics change every aspect of raising children. I realized that these are messages teens need to hear, in a format that is just for them. YA provides a relatable form of media that is no less nuanced, just more tailored to a teen’s experience. It is not enough for YA books to just exist about global issues. They need to be promoted in general media and treated with respect, because the more people who give them a platform, the more likely that the next generation will be an informed one.
The prose/argument can be just as Layered and Mind-Blowing: Think of "That's the thing about pain. It demands to be felt,” from The Fault in Our Stars, or "Things were rough all over but it was better that way. That way, you could tell the other guy was human too,” put so simply in The Outsiders. YA observes the world through the wide-eyed, witty observances of adolescents; it makes clairvoyant arguments about humanity, connection, heartbreak, and loss.
Finally, It’s not Always about the Book, Sometimes it is About the People: The TAB book club this year read one book per month all year. Out of all those books, only a small handful did we all decide were mind-blowing and impressive. Most were okay, some we downright did not like. But the community was always beautiful. Even when we didn’t enjoy the book, the TAB community used it as a jumping off point for wonderful conversations. If we felt a book dealt insensitively with race, gender, or another matter, we would often end up having an amazing conversation about the problem, why it was such a common trend, and how to be more nuanced. If we loved a book, we could have great conversations about all the little details it got right. No matter the book, I learned something. TAB showed me that community can turn a book into simply a starting point.
Maybe that is the goal of all reading communities: to teach each person something new about the world and about reading. For me, I learn something new every time I hear the words “We’re back with another episode of On the Shelf.”