i wanna read better books

how ’bout you?

I’ve always hated Romeo and Juliet. Macbeth I can contend with. King Lear is a stunning creation. Even Shakespeare’s comedies have me laughing in both recognition of my personality in those of the characters, as well as the absurdity of all the coincidental events. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy Shakespeare, especially a live performance. Despite not being able to understand the lines each actor banters with, it’s thrilling to be swept up in these plots. However, I’ve never read his work outside of a classroom. And which of Shakespeare’s plays were all the ninth-grade teenyboppers required to read? The tragic love story of a couple kids our own age.

I found Romeo and Juliet boring, to say the least. At this age, I had already tackled books like Poisonwood Bible and The Good Earth. In fact, I was offered a privileged opportunity in middle school to take a college-level course in Shakespeare because my reading level was higher than that of my peers. Despite my depth and breadth of literary exposure, I wasn’t interested in having to expound upon two kids whining about not being able to be together…. after knowing each other for mere hours! Why was this book selected to be thrust upon us in our extremely impressionable early teen years?

The themes of Romeo and Juliet still hold true in my life today: disappointment, passion, disobedience, even betrayal. But these themes were not presented in a complex way. These characters, following Aristotle’s classical unities, fell out of love and in love, married and murdered, all within the timeframe of a single weekend. I had little interest in the frivolity and lack of dedication these characters portrayed. My peers did not need to be encouraged to commit suicide over a botched relationship.

It seems to me that Shakespeare’s status as a rock star playwright has influenced his presence in every classroom, reappearing year after year on syllabi even though other material might be more engaging, easier to understand, analyze, and digest, and allow for more discussion, especially in written form via term papers. I wish that Shakespeare would be reserved for upper-level, highly motivated students. His work is oftentimes magnificent, especially his later plays. But if few people voluntarily opt to read Shakespeare, why not choose something a bit more enjoyable to teach the aforementioned themes?

Six years after that Romeo and Juliet encounter, and you’ll find me in a college classroom with a dozen other students. It’s 8 o’clock Tuesday night, and I’m exhausted. I didn’t finish the reading for the evening (The Tempest), but I hardly regret it. We’ve been reading from the text for two hours, and there’s still one more left to go. We skip sections and change roles frequently to give everyone a turn to be equally embarrassed trying to pronounce outdated words. This class fulfilled a requirement, and I certainly wrote some impressive analysis essays, but overall, I didn’t get much out of the course.

I find this issue again and again, even in courses where the book list is comprised entirely of cotemporary or minority authors. Not only do I have difficulty keeping up with the reading (which is usually around 100 pages per week in an English course), but other students outright admit to digging out their copies of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection only to come to class. Why do these straight-A college students have such poor study habits, I wonder? Could it be that their potentially positive reading habits were destroyed by experiences early on with archaic, dry texts like The Scarlet Letter and, yes, Shakespeare’s works?

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