Thursday, August 9, 2007

Reading With Training Wheels

I read To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf last week and it wasn’t until I watched Stone Reader earlier this week that something clicked. Critics and scholars discussing Dow Mossman’s book, The Stones of Summer commented that it was difficult to read, that they had to try it more than once to get through it, but that it was brilliant. That got me thinking about a discussion we had here some months back about whether we read some books because we like them or because we just want to like them.

At the time that I posted about our reasons for reading the classics, I don’t think I could articulate the reason I want to read them now. By reading great works that have shaped our culture we open ourselves up to a heightened experience.

There are books that most people agree are very difficult, almost painful to read. I’ve confessed here that I tried several William Faulkner novels before I was able to read and ultimately enjoy As I Lay Dying. James Joyce and William Gaddis are still sitting on the shelf, waiting.

Before last week, I’d never tried reading Woolf and I was a little worried. I sat down with the book and a highlighter and the expectation that it might be rough going. I knew that there wouldn’t be a word or a sentence that was not intended and I read slowly, paying particular attention to the objects, the individual characters and the dialogue. I read many sections a number of times as I went along.

I got it. I loved it. Of course there are things I’m sure I didn’t pick up on, but an understanding of the literary technique that makes this book special came through to me.

It makes me a little wistful to think that there are probably people like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner and William Gaddis – pick your icon, writing what could be this generation’s great literary works, but I doubt they’d have much chance of publishing it today. We're in too much of a hurry to get the action.

Reading books like these is a different kind of reading. It’s like the slow food movement. It can’t be done while I’m distracted and I can’t pick the book up five minutes here and ten there. It requires time set aside to focus.

For me, developing an appreciation for great literature is like learning about wine. It takes time and a little bit of money to develop a palate for good wine, but once you do, you can recognize what a miracle an exceptional wine truly is. Better yet, it makes discovering a good $10 or $15 bottle of wine that much more fun. Understanding the terminology, learning about the wine growing regions and the varietals grown around the world is a little bit of work, but anyone can do it and when undertaken as a hobby or learning experience, it can be a lot of fun. Learning about wine isn’t something everyone is interested in, but it doesn’t change the fact that bad wine, good wine and fine wine exists.

Developing an appreciation and even a love for great literature is similar. I’m referring to the books that are generally considered a part of the Western Canon; those works of artistic merit that have been most influential in shaping western culture. Up through the 1960s, there wasn’t a huge amount of disagreement about what works should be considered part of this list that goes back to the ancient Greeks. There has always been some disagreement of course, but not an enormous amount. Since then, there has been a great deal of controversy. My point is that there are works that did help to define our culture and what would be considered “high culture”. These books are held in esteem, not because the literary or academic world is exclusionary or elitist. It’s because they are better than other books. They have stood the test of time and continue to be studied and read long after they’re written.

Reading these books is not for everyone, but I delight in saying that despite my fears, it can be done, even by someone outside of a classroom – like me. To the Lighthouse was the first classic I read as a writer that I was able to study and enjoy at the same time. I think these types of books truly require study and some dedicated time. I don’t think any of the classics written up to the early twentieth century was ever meant to be read in the way we read other books. Many of us read before sleep when we’re tired and our concentration is at a low. I can do that with most books I read purely for pleasure, but not these.

So I wondered, when I finished To the Lighthouse, which I read immediately after Aristotle’s Poetics (also with highlighter in hand), how do these works impact me as a writer? When I intersperse reading these works with books like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and The Reluctant Fundamentalist, what am I gaining from this? Certainly, studying the classics, hearing the voices and recognizing the literary technique and the uniqueness of what each author has done is feeding me and helping me to grow and improve. It makes me aspire to write as well as I can in my own voice and with the awareness that I’m living in 2007 and like it or not, there are market realities I have to keep somewhere in the back of my mind if I do ever have hopes of publication.

The happiness I felt after reading this one particular book is in knowing that reading, understanding and enjoying the classics isn’t something that’s closed to me because I didn’t study literature in college. These books are accessible to me. For the same reasons that I learned about wine and about fine art, I want to read great works of literature. I’m not rich and I have very little formal education in the humanities, but what is fine and what is beautiful belongs to everyone, including me.

Do you read the classics or have a desire to read any that you haven’t? Do you believe our children should be taught the classics in school? How about art and classical music? Do you believe there are any great novelists writing today that are destined to become part of the Western Canon? If you don’t think there are any, why do you think that is?


Anonymous said...

Lisa, the more of them you read, the more you appreciate the classics and, the easier and more enjoyable they become.

They're also cheaper--found at every library sale for fifty cents to a dollar. Talk about getting your money's worth--versus a "best seller" at $25 plus!

susan @ spinning

Charles Gramlich said...

I've read a lot of the classics, some I had to read in school and others I chose because I felt I should read them. Although I've enjoyed many, many of the classics, others are simply not that good in my opinion and I feel free in saying so. I have a lot of strong opinions.

In my opinion, "Moby Dick" is highly overrated. It has some great characters and some winning lines, but it's far too pompous with far too many side trips to be great. "The Metamorphosis" by Kaffka is a loser. This kind of tale has been done far better by half the fantasy writers out there. As for James Joyce, I can't get through anything he's ever written without passing out from boredom. Faulkner isn't good enough to require the work he requires. Truman Capote is a better Faulkner than Faulkner was.

On the other hand, "The Old Man and the Sea," "The Grapes of Wrath," "Grendel," "One Hundred Years of Solitude," "Lord of the Flies," and "The Turn of the Screw" are superb works. "The Scarlet Letter" and "Heart of Darkness" are excellent.

Whew, I guess that's enough for now.

Lisa said...

Susan, Based on my recent reading experiences, I'm hoping it does get easier. I am optimistic! If anyone would know, it would be you. I visit Spinning regularly and am amazed at how prolific you are and at the fantastic ongoing commentary you provide on what you read. I read Saul Bellow's Ravelstein (because I had it) when you were reading Henderson the Rain King and I picked up a used copy of Herzog for later. I also realized there are a LOT of translations of The Confessions of St. Augustine and I don't think the one I have is one of the better ones. But you have motivated me to give it a try.

Charles, I love strong opinions! I chuckled to myself when I was writing this post because I thought (and hoped) it would solicit some good discussion. I'm with you on James Joyce, but I'm stubborn and I haven't given up on the notion that there must be something there, so I've got the Dubliners on the pile and I'm going to give it a shot -- sooner or later. Now I have to disagree with your opinion about Kafka -- I went through a huge Kafka phase and loved everything of his that I read. The Metamorphosis I always viewed as full of symbolism and I never thought of it as fantasy. I'm still on the fence with Faulkner because I tried to read a few things and then hit gold when I read As I Lay Dying. Since I have The Sound and the Fury, I'm also planning to give it a shot. Loved most of the others that you mentioned, but haven't read Grendel. And apparently I'm one of the few people who couldn't get through One Hundred Years of Solitude. I loved it through the first couple of hundred pages and then I got completely confused and bogged down. I couldn't keep all the characters straight in my head anymore and I set it aside. I blame the 70's for that :) My goal with these books that persist is to approach them as a reading assignment and study them as opposed to reading them for entertainment because I want to understand and be able to see myself why it is that they have made such an impact. Come on Charles, what about Kafka's short stories? In The Penal Colony? A Hunger Artist? Those are some seriously cool stories!

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I do think the classics should be taught (coming from a former English teacher that shouldn't be a surprise). An appreciation for art isn't always easy to pick up on your own, and perhaps today it's even harder. I don't love all great literature--and some of it that I love now, I didn't at first. But, I'm glad I've been exposed to it (well, maybe not opera, much to my parents' dismay).

And Lisa, when you're ready to pick up Sound and the Fury, just holler. That was one of my favorite books to teach.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've only read a few of Kaffka's short stories and I'm afraid I don't remember much about them, but it's the Metamorphosis that I really disliked. I think it is fantasy, although poorly done.

One hundred years of solitude is a bit long. but so many of the passages sing.

liz fenwick said...

I think classics should be taught. I also think that being forced to read expands the brain at a time when it needs it. My degree is in Eng. Lit. and looking through the book self I doubt I would have the paticence for many of them now but I know they have enriched and expanded my mind.

Well down for tackling them at this point. My reading time is limited so that I am trying pack in a balance of chalenging with works in the market I am aiming for...classics don't really fit unless I use them for the challenge :-)

kristen said...

I love this post, Lisa. And the comments...

I also believe that the classics should be taught, but I'm intrigued by your question regarding contemporary writers and who among them may become part of the Western Canon? I'd love your readers to toss out some names, and while I read a ton, I don't know if I'm well-read enough to offer up names of my own.

I think of authors like Annie Dillard, Jane Smiley, Dorothy Allison or Russell Banks and Cormac McCarthy? What would the criteria be? The timeframe?

I hope someone else pipes up on this question...

What do the literature teachers/students among us think?

Lisa said...

Judy, By now you're probably on to me. Anytime I selfishly want to pull you away from your work to hear from you I know I can do it by mentioning Faulkner in a post. I completely agree that the classics should be taught and I think the biggest reason is that if children aren't taught to read critically in school, I don't think they'll ever be able to do it on their own and reading critically is a key to thinking critically IMHO. And I will take you up on your offer about TSATF. When I get ready to read it, I will send you all my whiny questions when I get stuck :)

Charles, I still have the book -- maybe I'll try Love in the Time of Cholera first and then try to get back to it.

Liz, I couldn't agree more. Of course the fact that none of us really has the time is the obvious reason why we don't see new books coming out that are challenging. They wouldn't sell. I'm afraid as we move further into our busy, multi-tasking culture that it's eventually going to be tough to explain to kids why they have to read the classics when we don't have patience for them anymore -- it would be easier if we had some literary works written by people who are still alive. There are a few, but not many.

Kristen, You read my mind. I was almost going to post just that question -- maybe I still will. There is a good entry in Wikipedia about the Western Canon that may lay out criteria. Of course, part of the argument about he Canon is it's mostly a lot of dead white guys and it is an unbalanced list weighted by English speaking writers. We're seeing a lot of works in translation and works from Asia and Africa that should make a new 21st Century list I think. For my nominees I think maybe: Annie Proulx, Wallace Stegner (if he isn't already part of it), maybe Don Delillo, possibly Richard Ford. If I wasn't so scared of them, I'd pose the question to one of the litbloggers :)

Patti said...

I remember the second time I read A Tale Of Two Cities. I remember thinking that while the beginning was slow it kept building steam, and had whole chapters I failed to recognize the first time around! It was then I thought that maybe I should look to the classics with new eyes. Read some again.

And Joyce has always made me shake my head in disbelief. Seriously? Him?! Gaa....

My absolute fav classic author to turn younger readers on to is Shakespeare. When they read it and understand it and then want to talk about it...oh, man, not much better than that for me.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I loved Love in the Time of Cholera. But, like you, I couldn't get into 100 Years of Solitude.

Larramie said...

Although having read the American classics at a very young age and advancing to THE classics in adolescence and through college, I found myself disappointed in the way in which they were judged and how the writers' words interpreted. No one will ever truly understand what was meant, yet being exposed to all the fine arts is a true time travel experience that breathes humanity into all of history.

Lisa said...

Patti, It's really strange how some books don't work at certain points in our lives and then a few years later, it's like a different book. I loved reading Shakespeare in high school when I was talked through by a teacher. I've never tried reading him on my own -- the closest I've come is watching DVDs of a few plays with the subtitles on. Maybe I'll have to give him a try.

Judy, Yep, I just ran out of steam. I thought it might take me 100 years to finish reading it.

Larramie, I love the way you expressed your sentiments on exposure to the fine arts. It really makes me sad to know there are so many kids who will never learn about painters or composers or read the classics. I am so grateful to have been exposed to all of them as a kid. We used to have this board game called Masterpiece and I can't remember the object, but there were a bunch of cards with images of paintings on one side and the name, year and artist's name on the other. It was like having flashcards for artwork and I still remember quite a few of them today. That early exposure and visiting the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museums in Boston often gave me a lifelong love of art -- I'd never have met Scott if not for that.

Ross said...

Personal taste and personal experience... I think that's what determines whether or not you'll like a book, often aside from the quality of the writing. Personally, I'm trying to accept that I'm mostly a Typical American with a short attention span. I like straightforward language. At the same time, I loved what you said about "how some books don't work at certain points in our lives and then a few years later." That's been true for me, though somewhat in reverse order -- in college, umpteen years ago, I loved "The Sound and the Fury" and "Absalom, Absalom!" (Faulkner). But I tried to go back and read them again in the last year, and thought, "What the heck was I thinking! This makes my brain hurt."

Lisa said...

Ross, I think in college, you were accustomed to studying and reading critically. Outside the classroom we tend to lose that and along with it, our patience for books that we can't hurry through. I really believe some books need a commitment and we have to consciously decide to take all the time the we need to in order to give the book a chance. I know I cannot read something "hard" just before going to sleep, for example.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf