‘Don’t patronise teenagers – we're more than capable of enjoying classic literature’

A Year 11 student explains why pupils may be put off classic literature – but says it is relevant to today's teens

Emily Handel

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I picked up Anna Karenina, unsure of what to expect. Due to its classic status, I was worried I might find it obscure. In fact, I found the opposite was the case. I was incredibly moved by the story, finding myself completely swept up in the characters’ continually fluxing emotions.

I realised that the book is incredibly accessible, the characters endearing. This is partly due to Tolstoy's straightforward writing style. Instead of wrapping his characters in metaphors, he lays out their emotions in both their actions and thoughts. They are constantly crying, kissing and bowing, and all this goes alongside a narrative that travels into the thoughts of the characters, while remaining separate enough to give observations on the traits and emotions that they themselves are unaware of. In short, the characters are laid out for the reader, making them welcoming and relatable. It lays the foundations for Tolstoy to write a truly great novel.

Had I known how much I would love this book – how easy it would be to read – I would never have hesitated in starting it. So why did its label as a "classic" put me off?

Perhaps it was the stereotypes surrounding novels like Tolstoy’s – their "academic" status, the idea that they’re a "heavy" read – which made Anna Karenina seem daunting. But where do these ideas stem from?

Being 15, I can’t help but feel that it’s difficult to break away from reading young adult novels. Teenagers are marketed to as if these are the only books for us.

Don’t misunderstand me; there are some fantastic ones (I’ve read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses more times than I can count), but only picking titles from this category is hugely limiting for adolescents. Why do we need to label novels "young adult"? Good books can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age. I still love to read Winnie the Pooh.

I also feel that categorising fiction can put teenagers off reading more widely. This, partly, is where the belief that classic literature is too intellectual for teenagers originates from. It is, I’m sure, one of the reasons I was so sceptical about picking up Anna Karenina in the first place.

'They never lose their relevance'

Writers such as Shakespeare, Austen and Tolstoy have so much to offer us. There are reasons why Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina have survived so long. These stories never lose their relevance. What, for example, can a teenager learn about love from Tolstoy?

Anna, searching for an escape from the oppression of Russian high society and her dispassionate marriage, falls scandalously for the handsome and impetuous Count Vronsky, believing this will bring an end to her suffering. Not realising that, to find happiness, she must first love herself. This is a profound message: one that we are constantly trying to instil, particularly in teenagers. Yet no one highlights its importance quite as clearly as Tolstoy.

The characters and emotions that are at the heart of these fictions never change; they resonate as strongly now as they did for people 200 (or more) years ago. This is why classic novels can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of age. I know many of my peers enjoy film adaptations of these works, so why shouldn’t they find the novels equally as engaging?

'Teenagers enjoy discussing the big questions'

We do, however, need some encouragement. School is the perfect place to be introduced to classic novels, and to explore them in more depth. Teenagers do not need to be patronised. We enjoy discussing the "big questions" – in my experience, that’s one of the most engrossing aspects of our learning.

If we are taught to love these books, we will go on to read them for ourselves. Now is the time to set us up, for life, with a passion for what is timeless. Teenagers have the capacity to appreciate so much more than simply young adult fiction. Classic literature is for everyone. We need to tear down the prejudices surrounding writers from the past, and respect them for what they are: brilliant, insightful people who wrote, in the words of Jane Austen, "works in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature … the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language".

Emily Handel is a Year 11 student at Tavistock College in Devon

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Emily Handel

Emily is a Year 11 student at Tavistock College in Devon

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