Too Young for the Classics?

Thursday February 28, 2013

By Guide Biography: Patrick Kennedy

Just this week, I was talking with a high school student about Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse. Odd experience, that. I hadn't read Siddhartha, or any Hesse for that matter, until I was well into my 20s. Siddhartha, I'd assumed, was an older person's book--a story of experience, self-denial, and enlightenment that a high schooler would have trouble understanding And here was a high schooler who didn't just "get" Siddhartha, but could talk intelligently about it.

Is there, really, such a thing as an "older person's" book? That's what I've been wondering, and that's the question I'd like to put to you today. I'm not really asking of there are certain books that are too raunchy or too long for readers of a certain age. Rather, are there books that you think are way beyond young readers' comprehension--intellectually, philosophically, and emotionally?

If you were educated like I was, you may be tempted to give a resounding "YES!" and stop reading right here. In high school, there were plenty of books that were presented to me as coming attractions for more sophisticated novels. I read a survey of philosophy the 11th grade; actual Plato, Nietzsche, and Sartre would come later. I worked with an abridged Les Misérables in my French classes; I've only cracked Hugo's original recently. High school texts can be slim. But even a slim text can be intellectual dynamite, as is nicely demonstrated by common or common-enough high school readings such as Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. And, of course, Siddhartha.

Do you think that high schoolers (or younger) benefit from reading tough texts like these? Or should there be age restrictions on reading Existentialism? Send me your thoughts, and we'll continue with this topic in a future post.


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