The Nation's Pulse

Sour Grapes

Grapes of Wrath turns 72 but Steinbeck's classic, and others, are collecting dust among college readers.

By 4.18.11

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The Grapes of Wrath, published 72 years ago last week, remains a modern classic and a literary favorite, especially among older generations. Unfortunately, despite its success upon publication in 1939 -- it was one of the ten best sellers of the year -- young readers today are ignoring modern classics like Grapes in favor of more multicultural, narcissistic, politically ignorant fiction and non-fiction.

For the last century, modern classics have peppered the Publisher's Weekly top ten best sellers list. From Edith Wharton's House of Mirth (1905) to Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth (1931 and 1932) to Ernest Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940 and 1941), these novels were both popular with the public and acclaimed by critics.

Today on college campuses around the country, books like these hardly exist on recommended reading lists for college students. In fact, in a 2010 study by the National Association of Scholars (NAS), of 290 colleges and 190 reading programs, only five schools assigned classics, an inevitably debatable catalogue of books that have stood the test of time (Cornell did assign The Grapes of Wrath in 2009). Classics of antiquity -- Homer, Plato -- and works from the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods were absent altogether.

Instead, popular books that promoted multiculturalism and reflected "leftist political perspectives" replaced classics of the ages. Ten colleges assigned Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario, a creative nonfiction account of the journey of an illegal Honduran immigrant to the United States. Six schools assigned Warren St. John's Outcasts United, a description of a soccer program in a Georgia town for the sons of refugee families.

The study observed the majority of books incoming freshman read "offer a distinctly disaffected view of American society" and a "grim assessments of American life." Several colleges assigned Zeitoun, the story of a postKatrina hero who is mistakenly accused of belonging to Al Qaeda. NAS found that all of the Katrina-themed books colleges assigned took Americans to task for their inadequate response to the disaster and treatment of locals. Leftist political views among academia are hardly surprising, but on a national scale like this they are disheartening.

One might think that if not for Jane Austen or Bram Stoker, college students would never pick up a classic of their own volition. Actually, the situation is worse than that. In 2009, the Chronicle of Higher Education found that college students, in their free time, would rather read about the love between humans and vampires. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a book undeserving of explanation, nabbed the top spot. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight appeared on the list as well. In a Washington Post column about the subject, Ron Charles observed: "Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they're choosing books like 13-year-old girls -- or their parents."

Classics, modern or otherwise, needn't supersede all of the books young people read. In fact, it's possible some of the books may become modern classics as they age. But whether college deans purposefully exclude known classics or college students overlook them, the students suffer most. Books like The Grapes of Wrath wrap the reader up not only in a moving story of a family experiencing the Oklahoma dustbowl of the 1930s --something not unlike today's Katrina disaster -- but it demonstrates the inner-workings of an author grappling with a socio-economic dilemma within a politically charged climate.

Novels as different The Age of Innocence, Gone With the Wind, Lolita and To Kill a Mockingbird -- all bestsellers the year they were released -- are sadly missing from today's college campuses, yet each can teach readers that trifecta of literary brilliance and achievement: something about the world then, something universal about the world today, and something about the reader himself. If today's young readers remain unexposed to such quality, tomorrow's adults will be even more politically unaware, culturally shallow, and artistically ignorant than today's. 

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About the Author

Nicole Russell writes from Northern Virginia.