Great Books

The beginning to this line of thinking starts off in the murky past and bubbles to the surface every once in a while. The latest bubble to surface was after reading David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” read only by the intersection of people who enjoy David Foster Wallace’s essays and Dostoevsky, ie: me. While the essay is largely a rant about the insistence of ripping Dostoevsky’s novels out of their place and time and context to “analyze” them properly, I was struck by a part of the argument which shined light on the instinctual fear and trembling when faced with a book emblazoned with the horrible moniker CLASSIC.

CLASSIC is novel death: if the novel a classic, it sits on a shelf in pristine condition, unopened, unloved, and dusty until the end of time. CLASSIC means boring. CLASSIC means slow and ponderous and dull. Never mind that without Crime and Punishment no CSI would run in a thousand time slots across cable a night, or that the book is the original Crime and Procedural Drama; never mind that Crime and Punishment is eminently readable and enjoyable and Dostoevsky is an excellent and fast read; it is *CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and thus it is DEAD ON ARRIVAL.

I blame the teaching method of the novel in high school settings. A CLASSIC novel is “good for you” the same way lima beans are theoretically good for you (I disbelieve this notion). The CLASSIC is foisted upon the unsuspecting the student. “We are READING the NOVEL,” the teacher says. “There will be… A TEST.” The student muddles through the difficult and impenetrable text as if heading through a dense jungle with a dull knife with nothing more than double-spaced typed essays and exams to discover on the other side. Worse, the exam is about themes, themes which may not even be there, themes about stuff, themes themes themes. Themes completely divorced from the time period and events the author experienced. Read the book, do the essays, choke down the lima beans, cough up the words, extract no joy from the novel or the reading experience. Classic novels are not about literature as joy or discovery or experience or history — Classic novels are about WORK and ANALYSIS. Figure it out or fail the class! Must! Read! Book!

No wonder adults take pains to avoid the classic works. Nevermind that classic books are CLASSIC because they are the froth on the pond scum of the book market. These are the books who survive into multiple reprintings through popularity and name recognition. Nevermind that some very popular favorite books today will one day be considered classics and foisted upon unsuspecting high school students to “analyze” with sad little three page, double-spaced essays and no mention of our history. (Cormac McCarthy’s books anyone?) Nevermind that many of these CLASSIC novels were once bestselling mass market genre novels themselves. They are CLASSIC, and thus, they are toxic.

The hold on the imagination is difficult to break. The tensing up, the feeling of dread in the pit of the stomach, the worry about passing the class, the weird nightmares about final exams. My god, will this book be on the final exam? “What if I don’t like it?” you ask yourself. “Am I allowed to put it down? It’s a CLASSIC novel!” You bought it from Barnes and Noble. You’re stuck reading this thing. It’s supposed to be good! “What if I cannot flee?” you think. AIIIIEEEEE! The screams in the darkness! It’s a downward spiral from the book into depression and alcoholism and drugs and prostitution and appearing in a Darren Aronofsky movie and death because you picked up **Hemingway! The End! The End! The End!

I contend it’s all a bunch of crap. We teach the arts poorly in our schools and the novel worst of all. The novel is important and I rail against the insistence on draining the love from the experience. Read the books outside a classroom setting. Think of them as well-written genre novels. Put down the ones that don’t personally work and move on. Treat them like a paperback fantasy novel. I read Dostoevsky outside the context of the classroom. And Joyce. And Shakespeare. And F Scott Fitzgerald. And the poetry of D.H. Lawrence. And a dozen other classic works. I will argue that Gatsby has magnificent set pieces but no plot — and would fail a class, most certainly. But who cares? Read them! Read a book!

(Full disclosure: I refused to take literature classes in college after being branded ‘too stupid’ to take an AP English class in high school. Too stupid translates into ‘having my own opinions on books.’ Per my High School English teacher, I can neither read nor write in any language and I am too stupid to appreciate Shakespeare for what it is — sex romps and overwrought historical melodramas. Damn my insistence on enjoying a genre novel for what it is. And my neverending hatred for Old Man and the Sea.)


* I have read C&P, despite being told I am too dumb to read C&P. It always appears on my top 5 favorite books list.

** This is what happens when you read Hemingway, by the way. Medical fact.

  • Kim

    I agree with you mostly, but:

    What about Faulkner? Faulkner is SO HARD!! No one ever assigned The Hamlet to me, I assigned it to myself, but I still can’t seem to read it.