Reading the Classics (or How I Might Be a Totally Stupid Reader)
Okay, I did it. I finally read all the way through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And I don’t understand all the sound and fury. I know that some people are nearly rabid about Austen. I was amazed that the writing did keep me engaged, despite the fact that the story and the characters made me want to smash a pianoforte to a million bits and then set it afire. I am a flawed reader who often fails to appreciate nuance in the absence of action, I suppose.
Reading is such a subjective activity and I can be a contrary person. If something is all the rage, I’m likely to read it several decades down the road, when people finally shut up about it. I wait until bestsellers show up in secondhand bookstores, when they’ve already been turned into crappy movies and mouse pads. If it’s a classic, I’m likely never to read it at all, unless a grade is involved.
I force marched myself through Tolstoy’s War and Peace as some sort of masochistic challenge. I’m sure it was a fine novel. I forgot the whole damned thing while I was reading it, because I had to spend too much time looking at the cast of characters in the front of the book. I have a background in Russian language, yet I could not keep the -ovs, -ichs and -skis straight.
I’m an eclectic reader and I don’t pretend to have good taste. I like a good story, direct language and a sense at the end of the book that the writer pulled a hat trick. He or she drew me into a world, into emotions that were not my own. Toni Morrison breaks my heart. Wally Lamb makes me sigh. Voltaire makes me giggle at absurdity. Flannery O’Connor gives me the chills.
It hit me over the last couple of weeks that I may have gotten myself completely wrong as a writer. I wrote a contemporary novel, but got bored part way in and just started turning my characters into complete freaks. When I look at what I like to read, it is apparent that longer works of fiction are rarely in my book stack. This gives me pause, due to that old truism about writing what you want to read. Apparently there is more than one reason why I’d prefer not to read what I’ve written.
As I’ve gotten older, I read more nonfiction and random one-off books, as well as short story collections. I try to read from a variety of genres, genders, geographical and ethnic backgrounds, but I wonder if this dilutes my ability to truly appreciate any one particular form. I don’t have the chance to develop a keen sense of “good” writing because my leap from one form to the other prevents comparison.
I am often grateful that I did not pursue a degree in literature, though. The lit classes I took throughout high school and college ruined whatever piece of work we were reading. I learned to loathe Joseph Conrad and Jonathan Swift in this manner. And I was disappointed after reading The Great Gatsby that any single character was left standing. I felt a pianoforte inferno was due there as well.
The books that I hold dear are great stories, but maybe not great literature. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a cherished book on my shelf, as is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Everything by Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and Anne Tyler has a home on the shelf, as do my Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle collections (gifts from my grandfather). My shelf of light reading contains a lot of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, J.K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell and short story collections – paperbacks well worn from airports and beaches. I might never read them again, but they are what I imagine luxury to look like.
There are times when I read what I think I should, but maybe it’s that sense of obligation that turns things for me. There’s never as much pleasure as when I “discover” a book on my own. This latest turn about the garden with Austen reminds me that it is unlikely I’ll ever enjoy something that is described as a “novel of manners”, because I apparently don’t have any when it comes to literary appreciation. But in the words of Elizabeth Bennett: you must give me leave to judge for myself.
I usually have several books in play at any given time. I’m currently reading:
The Big Sea by Langston Hughes
Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide by Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox
Every War Has Two Losers by William Stafford
We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider
What’s in your reading stack?