Kevin Smokler readily admits that when it comes to high school English classes he was a moron, a chronic complainer who bitched so often and so loudly about having to read classic literature that he ruined the experienced for everyone else. He now believes that “the classics” too often “get off on the wrong foot” with adolescent readers who never get over the bad experience they had with the books in high school. Smokler has written Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School in hopes that some of these readers can be convinced to give “the classics” the second chance they deserve.
Practical Classics is divided into ten theme-oriented sections containing Smokler’s essays on five books that fit within the chosen categories. Those categories are: Youth and Growing Up, Identity, The Inner and the Outer World, Love and Pain, Working, Family, Ideas and Learning, Violence and Loss, We the Hero, and The Future.
Smokler did not actually first encounter all fifty of the featured books while in high school – only a very special high school could have pulled that one off – but he selected each of the books for specific reasons. He wanted books that offer “brisk reading experiences,” story-oriented books with relatively straightforward narratives (mostly novels and plays). Smokler also includes a few books that were probably not assigned reading in any high school of his era, books that he hopes are being read in high schools today.
For the most part, Smokler’s essays (average length of about five pages each) are interesting even to readers already fairly familiar with the book or work being discussed. Some of the author’s book choices are a little off the beaten path, however, and in trying to persuade readers to give those books a chance, Smokler’s vague reasoning can be more confusing than persuasive. This is most notable in his essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin and his “Understanding Marshall McLuhan” piece.
Some of the more conventional choices that Smokler includes in his “50 Books” are Huckleberry Finn, The Age of Innocence, Candide, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. More recent “classics” include: To Kill a Mockingbird, Portnoy’s Complaint, Maus, The Joy Luck Club, Fahrenheit 451, and The Bluest Eye.
If you are like me (I can claim to having read only 12 of the 50 books), Practical Classics will likely convince you to try some of ones you’ve manage to avoid up until now. The essays can be a little hit and miss, I admit, but I’m now curious enough about six or seven of the titles to find copies of them for the first time. And that’s what Practical Classics is all about, really…second chances.