Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
What is a classic you think should be required school reading?
The secret of most syllabi is, of course, that the instructors put books on it that they like. You may think they’re choosing the best of the canon or some significant classics and, to some extent, they are choosing the books that you “ought” to have read if you’re going to have a solid grasp of the literary tradition and its influences. Still, when you only have room for maybe two novels in a high school class or eight in a college course, and an entire range of “important” books to choose from, you’re going to be tempted to choose the ones that you personally enjoy. In that fine tradition, I thus present to you a critically-acclaimed and very important modern classic–but also one I happen to love: My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.
My Name Is Asher Lev follows the titular character as he grows up a Hasidic Jew but one who possesses a artistic gift his father thinks is demonic. Asher needs to paint to live, but his community believes art is a waste of time. His gift causes others to scorn him and his father to hate him. His family is being torn apart. And yet Asher wants to believe that he can express himself as an artist and still remain faithful to his religion. The tension between his desire to paint and his desire to serve his God and his people combine to create a story that is likely to break your heart.
And, of course, the work would count as a diverse piece of fiction that would also help students empathize with and understand with characters who may have a different lifestyle or religion from their own. As schools increasingly search for books that reflect the lives of a myriad of readers, this one would certainly help fill that gap.