The purpose of being an English major, I have recently discovered, is to make me "culturally literate." The novels, short stories and poems that have been selected to assist in this process are ones that have been deemed the greatest. They will change the lives of those who read them and make them more empathetic to the human condition.
If anything, since being forced to endure these "literary greats," I have become less empathetic to the human condition. Most of the authors whose works I have been reading have killed themselves, created characters who have killed themselves, or are clearly quite tempted to kill themselves.
Don't get me wrong; I'm not opposed to making my boyfriend read me Sylvia Plath poems aloud while I fall asleep. The summer before my senior year of high school, I read Flowers for Algernon for fun. And I love me some inky-cloaked Hamlet every so often. But would it be such a crime to assign literature that isn't meant to torment and depress the reader in order to get a message across? Almost every story I've read in my Bible-like Norton Anthology for American Lit this semester involves some old dude who is depressed because he's on the brink of death and he's filled with regret, blah blah blah. It's not surprise that I would rather hang out with Becky Bloomwood than one of those schmucks.
I propose that in addition to the soul-killing literature that is shoved down our throats faster than we can swallow, we should be reading some Chuck Klosterman essays that provoke thinking about life in a way that is funny and relevant without being sad and pseudo-meaningful. Or we can read a novel that addresses tough questions but gives at least a hint of hope at the end, such as the ending to The Perks of Being a Wallflower:
"So, if this does end up being my last letter, please believe that things are good with me, and even when they’re not, they will be soon enough.
And I will believe the same about you."
Doesn't that sound a little less depressing than sitting through an hour and five minutes listening to people discuss the meaninglessness of life as it relates to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?
It is. There can still be educational value in optimism, and that's coming from a self-proclaimed pessimist. So until the literature proves to be less suicide-inducing, I will spend my class time immersing myself in happier thoughts i.e. by scanning the classroom and deciding what I would do if I were Stacy London and my classmates were actually contestants on What Not To Wear.
Now that gives me hope.