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Literature in the 21st Century

Written by Antero Garcia
May 10, 2013

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’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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