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Literature in the 21st Century


Kayla Martinson, Shelby Williamson, Josh Mortensen

This resource approaches the following three questions:

  • Why should students read literature in the 21st century?
  • What qualifies as a text in the 21st century?
  • What literature should students be reading in the 21st century?

Why should students read literature in the 21st century?

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Reading is one of the most important intellectual activities we as humans can ever engage in. It’s more than simply decoding a string of symbols on a page or a wall or a message board. Reading is a process of comprehension and understanding and it applies to every aspect of life where we must decode something in order to lead our individual existences.

Nevertheless, things have changed since the turn of the century, so as educators we must ask: Why should students read literature in the 21st century? The following YouTube video answers that question. The video is a very condensed version of author John Green’s introduction for a miniseries on reading literature. In it, he expands on the reasons why he believes literature is important.


Green's four main reasons:

  • Stories are about communication.
  • Reading is always an act of empathy, always an imagining of what it’s like to be somebody else.
  • Reading critically and thoughtfully gives us better tools to explain corporate profits and broken hearts and helps us to connect to each other.
  • By knowing what it’s like to be the people we read about, we learn more about those around us, those who came before us, and we learn more about ourselves.


 What qualifies as a text in the 21st century?

What can be considered a text anymore? Previously it’s been just that: text. It was words on a physical page that people read, but with the ever-growing prominence of technology in life and in classrooms, the word text is much like the word film. We still use it to refer to movies, but we don’t use “film” anymore, do we?

Text should include much more than just words on a page. What about words on a computer screen? Spoken word poetry—which is becoming extremely popular now—screen plays, movies, audio books, text messages, blogs, podcasts, instant messaging, YouTube videos, pictures, and scripts should all be included in this definition of text. As long as a person is able to re-read, analyze, visualize, ask questions, relate it to real life, talk about it, and think about it, why are we devaluing these things as non-textual items? The internet has made it possible for students to take these non-traditional texts as revisit them so that they may analyze them. We are transcending the limitations of print-based texts into this incredible realm of possibility through advancing technology.


[Here we have a student (left) and a regular performer (right) performing spoken word. Is this not a text simply because we, as the mass readers, cannot “read” it? Does it not evoke emotion like a text should?]

Paulo Freire and Donald Macedo in their book Literacy: Reading the Word and the World place heavy importance on students not only paying attention to words on a page, but to what is going on around them.  Freire speaks about the reinvention of text by stating that a text cannot stand alone. He uses the example of Socialist Lenin writings and how it is impossible to apply them to another country (in this situation Latin America) without understanding the “social, political, historical, cultural, and economic factors” of said country (Freire 133).  Can a student, whether he or she is a conventional student or a student of the world, learn these areas of study solely through words on a page?

While I think that “words on a page” should be the prime focus of a literature class, I do not think that it should be used to assess a student’s overall literacy. Good readers are thought to be active, purposeful, evaluative, thoughtful, strategic, persistent, and productive. As Mraz, Vacca, and Vacca question in their book Content Area Reading: Literacy and Learning Across the Curriculum, why must this stop at the physical act of reading ?

What literature should students be reading in the 21st century?

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One of the largest online communities for discussing literature is Reddit.com’s r/literature, which boasts over 40,000 subscribed readers and contributors worldwide, as well as an indeterminate amount of casual browsers. This community consists of educators, readers, writers, and publishers.  When r/literature was recently asked, “What literature should students be reading in the 21st century?,” this was their reply:

"Absolutely everything they can get their hands on, but particularly texts, studies and theories with a reputation for being challenging. Literature lets us view a variety of ideas. Whether the 21st century is an exception among centuries, or another face in the crowd, people should be educated and prepared for all the wonderful things the world will throw at us." -Anonymous

"Students of literature of the 21st century have access to a wealth of reading material spanning as far back as the ancients. There is so much to read and learn that it would be impossible to make a selection. The thing with literary studies is that older theories or viewpoints do not become irrelevant as newer theories are discovered. The works of Aristotle can be, in some contexts, just as relevant as Judith Butler. So yeah, it is difficult to make a selection." -Anonymous

"A technique that I'm fond of, personally, is to structure the curriculum around a set of 'debates' between various authors and critics. For instance, reading Heart of Darkness alongside Things Fall Apart, or Wolfgang Iser alongside Stanley Fish. This isn't a perfect approach, as, like the thematic approach, it tends to over-emphasize certain issues in the texts, but it can be useful in getting students familiar with doing comparative analysis as well as developing critical thinking skills." -Anonymous

"To me, 21st Century literacy is about more than being able to read and access information; when you've got literally anything at your fingertips, you need to know how to discern between what information is correct, reliable, meaningful, and/or articulate. This is the new literacy, if you ask me." -Anonymous

With the near-unlimited access to literature today, how can teachers possibly construct a curriculum? How can a reading list represent the diversity of classic and contemporary works while also utilizing new literacies and literary theories? The survey below may be used as a guide to answer these questions or help construct a real-life reflection of where other teachers around the world are placing value in their curriculum reading lists. Please take a few minutes to answer the following questions (results below):

Access survey here


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<p>Most of these articles provoked questions that could keep us in debate for years, but what I seemed to latch onto particularly was the question of What should students read in our classroom? I really enjoyed the anonymous comment from Reddit's r/literature that as a teacher, he/she creates a curriculum around texts in opposition/debate (e.g. Heart of Darkness/Things Fall Apart). Even though binary oppositions can be oversimplifications of complex issues, I think it's an interesting strategy to promote critical literacy by forcing investigation of different perspectives.</p> <p>Continuing the question of what to read in the classroom, there was also some mention of reading non-canonical texts. I'm wondering if a teacher could create a conversation between what it means to be canon/outside of canon. That is, if you choose Heart of Darkness, why not choose an African novel that hasn't been 100% "approved" by the modern Western canon like Things Fall Apart has? Why not set Heart of Darkness in opposition to a lesser-known book like A Grain of Wheat? Or you could make a temporal opposition between Heart of Darkness and a contemporary book about Westerners in Africa to provoke debates about how Western beliefs/biases about Africa have changed/not changed over the years. Or what about something crazier like examining the gender roles in Pride and Prejudice in conjunction with those in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? In short, I think we can promote critical literacy in part by incorporating texts as a series of conversations: canon vs. non-canon, historical vs. contemporary, dominant voices vs. marginal voices, high-brow literature vs. low-brow. By forcing the issue of comparison, we can invite students to think from multiple perspectives in their own lives and to make connections with people outside their own culture/time/social group.</p> <p>(I studied Comparative Literature, though, so I may be totally biased here.)&nbsp; </p> <p>&nbsp;</p>
<p>The thing that struck me in this article was throughout the discussion was the idea of being able to take the tried and true classics and applying them into a new context that goes along with new sources. The beginnig of this article discussing the different forms of texts that are now everywhere the eye sees really got me thinking about the importance of keeping the classics in our lives, because as others have said before people don't change even though the surroundings might. I believe that taking the older texts and learning how to use new media and different sources in combination can create students who look critically at both the new pieces of literature in their lives, while also being critical of the past. By looking at both past and present pieces of texts and being critical of them students can become active members of the movement towards the future. Particularly, one of the quotes at the end of this sections stuck out to me, "<em><span>To me, 21st Century literacy is about more than being able to read and access information; when you've got literally anything at your fingertips, you need to know how to discern between what information is correct, reliable, meaningful, and/or articulate. This is the new literacy, if you ask me." - Anonymous.</span></em><span> I think this captures the essence of being critical of both past and present in order to work for tomorrow.</span></p>
<p>There is one specific reason that I was drawn to the language arts, and that is it's all-encompassing nature. Literacy: reading the word and the world. With an ever-growing and evolving culture that continues to build on the past while looking to the future, the 21st century has birthed complexities that can always be found in the texts of our time. Not only that, but with the help of our technology we are exposed to the greats of the past, creating an endless network of knowledge. The assertions Green made in his video brought me this awareness. Through literature we are in constant communication with those of the past and each other, making our 21st century classrooms worlds of potential. The key to me that was mentioned by Green is empathy. If students and teachers have the means to communicate through literature and other types of text to understand where we are all coming from, then we&nbsp;can foster the knowledge neccessary for an ever-changing world.&nbsp;</p>