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?