Are the Classics Wasted on the Young?

My ambitious sixth grader is reading Moby Dick, the unabridged. He wasn’t sure he understood it, though, so I offered to read with him. After all, it’s been on my guilt list for a couple decades. Guilt list: books you assume I must have read while majoring in English. Guilt tome: the actual nine-page single-spaced list my first university assumed I would have read between birth and senior English exam. (For the younger crowd, that exam has been discontinued. Getting a B was called acing it. And my thesis defense is now your thesis presentation as well, but I digress.)

So recently, after viewing reclaimed treasures from the sunken pirate ship, the Whydah (Whid-duh), we were in a wonderfully nautical frame of mind as we settled in for the challenge, mom, boy, and a whale of a book. At least it had to beat Gray’s Anatomy–the famous anatomy textbook, not the show–and every detail of the hooks in our spinal columns, which fascinated this boy when he was four.

We began with the most famous opening in English literature. “Loomings”? Each chapter has a title? Who knew?

And how come no one mentioned that Melville is funny??

His vocabulary has me teaching Latin roots as we go along, and his dry observations would be lost on a kid, but with a bit of translation, we’re both laughing.

So many books are lost on the young. Generations of ninth graders read To Kill a Mockingbird. I loved it (as the future English major, I was an exception in my class), but rereading it, it’s even richer. I have to say I’m glad I read plenty of classics “too young,” because they helped make me who I am. But I don’t think I’ll check them off my list and assume I got them.

It’s delicious to read a classic with a child and bridge the gaps between childhood experiences and the world of the book, but I’ll bet my son will reread this in about thirty years, and tell me he read it way too young.


Text © Gwyn Nichols 2011. All rights reserved.