Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Thoughts on Literature

Some of my reader friends set challenges for themselves each year. These challenges may be reading a certain number of books, crossing off all the letters on an A-Z list (using book title or author's name), reading certain genres, etc. In 2011, I challenged myself to read four classic novels.

Though philology may be my great passion, let’s be real: the vast majority of my book choices are fluff*. Perhaps 15% of the books I read in a year are literary fiction, and another 5% are non-fiction. Every year I say: “I’m going to read at least one classic novel this year,” but it never happens. I decided my chances of success in 2011 would be greater if I chose the novels ahead of time, rather than have the abstract idea of “four classic novels.” My selections were:

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The reason I picked this challenge is simple: classic literature is wasted on teenagers. We all were force-fed classics in junior high and high school. In many cases, our teachers had taught the same books year after year, and they were as bored as we were. Plus, we were teenagers! We were utterly unprepared for true understanding of Dickens, Shakespeare, Twain, Hemingway, et al. I began thinking how much more we might enjoy this work if we read it as adults, once we had some life experience under our belts.

Recently, I came across a list from when I was in school; it shows the books I was assigned each year from 7th to 11th grades. Three titles, in particular, caught my attention: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. I distinctly remember reading each of these and discussing them in class. On some level, I understood the message the author intended, but I think that understanding would be much, much deeper if I were to read them now.

The Metamorphosis describes a man, Gregor Samsa, who wakes to find he has turned into a giant cockroach. He is a virtual prisoner in his own home, and the family he has sacrificed to care for quickly tires of caring for him. As his humanity slips away, Samsa realizes the futility of every man’s life.

Kafka’s The Metamorphosis was written in German and first published in 1915, and it seems very little has changed in a hundred years. Every man struggles to find his purpose and passion in life, but often the tedium of day-to-day life replaces his quest. Inevitably, this man will one day wake to find that he no longer recognizes himself, and that his sacrifices have gone unappreciated and may even be resented. If only the average 16-year-old could get that message: to be who he is, to do what drives him, and to never, ever apologize for seeking his purpose!

Dostoevsky used his own life as a template for Crime and Punishment. It is the story of a young man who lives in poverty with no hope of escape. Raskolnikov commits a murder in order to steal money from his victim, but convinces himself that the murder is altruistic. As he is sought by authorities and eventually punished, Raskolnikov struggles between his actual motives and what he believes his motives to be.

We’re all guilty of not owning up to our motives. It’s so much easier to let ourselves believe we’re making the altruistic choice, when we’re really taking the easy way out. A woman stays in a bad marriage so her kids can have both parents; truth is, she’s afraid she can’t make it on her own. A man commits suicide because the world (and his own daughter) will be better off without him; truth is, he doesn’t have the strength to face the consequences of his actions.

At its core, Don Quixote is a study of the differences between perception and reality. After reading many romantic stories, Don Quixote sets out across Spain with his “squire,” Sancho Panza, to perform his own chivalrous acts. But these men are not a heroic knight and his squire; they are average men seeking an extraordinary life. With the help of those he meets along the way, Don Quixote explores truth, perception, imagination, reality, and his own heart.

Truth is based on perspective, and there are very few things in life that are true for all people, all the time. Reality, therefore, cannot be reduced to facts. It is dependent on each person’s perspective. Every single thing that has happened to me over the course of my life affects how I perceive the present moment. Life is not simply cause and effect. Life is not simple. But we are not so different from our ancestors; if we ignore classic literature, we miss the opportunity to see a part of who we are.

I admit that I did not finish reading Don Quixote in high school. I was burned-out on school, and I could not make myself read another page of that book. And I admit that I don’t believe all “legendary” authors deserve that status (I’m talking to you, Ernest Hemingway). But if you enjoy reading, find the classic literature section in your local bookstore. I hope you’ll find something that interests you. They take longer to read than the average New York Times bestseller, but these books are classics for a reason. Those of us who love books must take the time to appreciate these great works of art.

*Fluff – books that are entertaining and easy to read, but that have no real literary value.


Erin said...

The only book I had to read out of those three was Don Quixote and it was in spanish class so I didnt even really understand what it was about. Our teacher finally gave up on it and us after chapter 4 cause we couldn't even pronounce half the words in it, let alone figure out what they meant and get a deeper understanding of it as a novel.

The ones that were hard for me to read was Great Expectations, The Scarlet Letter and Moby Dick. I appreciate that I did read those three however in high school because occasionally on TV or in movies they will make references to those books and now I get the joke.

Last summer I read Jane Eyre and I absolutely loved it. I want to go see the movie that is coming out this summer but no one will go see it with me! :(

Carol said...

Don Quixote was really, really hard. I only got about halfway through, but I think I might tackle it in 2012. I also read The Scarlet Letter and Great Expectations in school. I'm not a fan of Dickens, but I'd like to read The Scarlet Letter again sometime.

I haven't read Jane Eyre yet, but I'd love to see the movie! You going to be in town anytime soon?