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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts – It seems as though I’ve been going for my college degree forever since my on and off career in schools of higher learning began about 65 years ago. Be that as it may I still have a few courses left and at the beginning of this semester’s English class on Literary Studies we had to write a brief essay on why we chose to major in English. Part of the assignment was to list the types of literature that was not included in the high school curriculum, so I made a point of mentioning both comedy and contemporary writing as books that should not have been ignored.
What did the New York City Board of Ed have against humor, and why were only the works of dead authors assigned to be read? Aren’t books of modern novelists also worth reading, and weren’t there humorists living prior to or in the 19th century? Why did educators think that reading about David Copperfield would interest us just because he was approximately our age, though he lived in a time and place to which we had no connection and couldn’t relate?
Continuing on the subject of questionable literary decisions or opinion, I’ve never been able to understand why writers of tragedy have always been venerated and their works held in such high critical acclaim. The authors in this genre that immediately come to mind are Anton Chekhov and Franz Kafka, two guys whose works are the most depressing imaginable, guaranteed to make even the happiest person contemplate the futility of life. To my way of thinking their stories are valueless, being of no interest and of dubious literary worth. Charles Dickens wrote better than either and his stories’ endings were at least hopeful if not completely happy.
There are so many fine authors, past and present, whose books are far more enjoyable due to the humor they contain or the positive messages they convey. I cannot think of a better example of a cleverly humorous author of the eighteen hundreds than Oscar Wilde who lampooned the foibles and silly conventions of society that still exist, in plays such as “The Importance of Being Ernest,” or the iconoclastic mid-20th century writing of Joseph Heller whose “Catch-22” became an immediate classic, a book so funny that I had to put it down on several occasions while reading it on the NY subways for fear of laughing out loud in the midst of strangers.
Instead of making youngsters wallow in Chekhov’s and Kafka’s worlds of overwhelming adversity and ultimate doom, why not have teens revel in the hopeful universe of rugged individualism as portrayed in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged,” books that glorify the individual and his or her success over the purveyors of mediocrity, defeatism, or resignation. Isn’t that a better message to implant in developing minds?
Despite my sorry high school literary experience I still eventually managed to acquire a liking for reading so perhaps the experts weren’t totally wrong, although my time in college might have been shortened by a year or two had something to laugh at been included.