Modern books reflect the realities of society
Literature is meant to be a lens through which we view the world. It's not the only lens, by any means, but it's one that is ingrained in our education systems and in our daily lives. From a young age, we learn about classic stories — books that everyone knows to some degree: Romeo and Juliet, Animal Farm, for instance. Books that have themes that resonate with all of us in their own ways, even if we've never read them. They're embedded in our everyday conversations naturally.
These books are important. They contain universal ideas and still have so much value today, but they aren't enough. They don't reflect the realities of people's lives today, of a world with everything from smartphones and police brutality. There's an implicit idea that the past is somehow more whole and purer; therefore, we should look back for ideas. Modern books, especially the books that become our pop culture moments that are usually geared towards teenagers, are meant to be thought as being on the opposing end of the spectrum from classic books. One holds the secrets of humanity, the other is bite-sized bits of colorful fluff, stories of teen angst and vampires.
Here's the thing: pop culture moments reflect the world around us. Especially in the U.S., these books say important things about the state of our country. This is especially important in the context of diverse books. The publishing industry began to truly focus on diversity over the last few years, which has resulted in a dazzling array of main characters. There are stories with people of color displayed front and center on their covers, books about LGBTQ+ characters and relationships, and books featuring characters with disabilities that don't just use them as a plot function. These are books meant to share experiences that go beyond the basic narrative, and help people empathize with others and also examine features of their own lives.
The viewpoint that modern books don't have the same weight as classics undermines the necessity to keep using literature as a way to understand the present and not just the past. It's important to respect and reflect on the realities of today, of stories that are anchored to the world we live in at the moment. This past week, the American Library Association announced its annual awards. These are the awards that result in the shiny metallic stickers on the cover of books, books that many of us read when we were younger, and continue to read today. The most interesting award is the William Morris Award, which is given to a debut author in young adult literature. The finalists this year were diverse in theme and scope, addressing everything from Islamophobia to race-based police brutality. These are books that discuss topics that aren't covered by classic books, and showcase narratives that are often forgotten. The finalists of that competition may now bear that shiny medal, but it's important that we still respect them and their peers even without those awards.
There's a tendency to diminish things that are geared towards young people. It's the same reason there are a million think pieces that bash millennials for avocado toast. We mock things that are new, that deviate from the known path. However, these different stories and perspectives are so important to recognize. They explore themes that aren't yet part of the public consciousness in the way that classics are.
Literature is an important tool for sharing perspectives and ideas. It doesn't have to be limited to a set of old books. We should follow the lead of the American Library Association and seek out excellence in the books that are coming out, that push the boundaries of what we know and expect. So many books that we learn about in school vary from the experiences people go through in real life. We need to incorporate stories that students can truly relate to and deal with the themes that they think about. As we continue to challenge our societal norms and ideas, literature will only serve to help.