As a preteen, I steered clear of “young adult” fiction, a form I resentfully suspected would try too hard to teach me lessons. Then again, if I’d had a young adult novelist like John Green — not far out of adolescence himself when I entered the YA demographic — perhaps I’d have actively hoped for a lesson or two. While Green has earned a large part of his fame writing novels like Looking for Alaska, An Abundance of Katherines, and The Fault in Our Stars, a sizable chunk of his renown comes from his prolific way with internet videos, especially of the educational variety, which also demonstrate his possession of serious teaching acumen. Last year we featured his 40-week Crash Course in World History, and today we offer you his collection of crash courses in English literature. At the top, you’ll find its first lesson, the seven-minute “How and Why We Read.” Green, in the same jokey, enthusiastic onscreen persona as before, follows up his world history course by reminding us of the importance of writing as a marker of civilization, and then reveals his personal perspective as a writer: ”I don’t want to get all liberal artsy on you, but I do want to make this clear: for me, stories are about communication. We didn’t invent grammar so that your life would be miserable in grade school as you attempted to learn what the Márquez a preposition is. By the way, on this program I will be inserting names of my favorite writers when I would otherwise insert curse words.”
Those lines give you a sense of Green’s tone, as well as his objective. If you felt miserable not just studying grammar in grade school but studying actual literature in high school, these lessons may well revitalize a few of the classics with which you couldn’t engage in the classroom. Just above, we have Green’s crash course on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (part one, part two) which, early on, gets interrupted by a familiar-looking young objector: “Mr. Green, I hate everything about this stupid collection of first-world problems passing for a novel, but my hatred of that Willa Cather-ing loser Daisy Buchanan burns with the fire of a thousand suns.” This draws a groan from our host: “Ugh, me from the past. Here’s the thing: you’re not supposed to like Daisy Buchanan, at least not in the uncomplicated way you like, say, cupcakes. I don’t know where you got the idea the quality of a novel should be judged by the likability of its characters, but let me submit to you that Daisy Buchanan doesn’t have to be likable to be interesting. Furthermore, most of what makes her unlikable — her sense of entitlement, her limited empathy, her inability to make difficult choices — are the very things that make you unlikable.” Green knows that many of us, no matter how literate, still fall back into the disadvantageous reading strategies for which we settled in high school. He does his entertaining utmost to correct them while exploring the deeper themes of not just Gatsby, but other such oft-assigned (and oft-ruined-for-kids) works as Romeo and Juliet (part one, part two), the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and, below, The Catcher in the Rye (part one, part two):
A Crash Course on Literature will be added to our handy collection: 200 Free Kids Educational Resources: Video Lessons, Apps, Books, Websites & More
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.