I’ve been lurking the Weekly Geeks blog, and this week’s question caught my eye:
1) How do you feel about classic literature? Are you intimidated by it? Love it? Not sure because you never actually tried it? Don’t get why anyone reads anything else? Which classics, if any, have you truly loved? Which would you recommend for someone who has very little experience reading older books? Go all out, sell us on it!
I can trace my love of classic literature back to three sources.
Source number one was my tenth grade English teacher, Mrs. MacArthur. She taught what more or less amounted to a survey of British literature. We started with Shakespeare. I’d read Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream the year before, but a pretty lackluster teaching experience hadn’t left me with much of an appreciation for his work. Mrs. MacArthur had us read three plays: MacBeth, Julius Caeser, and The Taming of the Shrew. Even though I still don’t particularly care for Julius Caeser, the way she taught those three plays to us saved Shakespeare for me. I borrowed my father’s complete works after that class, and started reading on my own.
Mrs. MacArthur also introduced me to the first school book I ever enjoyed so much that I read ahead because I needed to know what happened. That book is Pride and Prejudice. I’m still grateful to have been given the opportunity to be guided through reading that book. The things that Mrs. MacArthur brought out formed the fundamentals for how I analyze literature. It’s not a skill I use often anymore, but it is a very worthy skill to have learned. I only disliked two books in that class: Julius Caeser and A Tale of Two Cities, but you better believe I learned to respect them as works of art.
As a side note, Mrs. MacArthur also influenced my casual reading. I ran into her at the bookstore one weekend, and she recommended Robin McKinley’s Beauty to me. I later was able to have that exact book autographed by Ms. McKinley. The cover art from that era was perhaps not the most attractive in the universe, which Ms. McKinley remarked on. I noted that I could never give it up, as A) a most beloved teacher had put that exact copy in my hands, and B) I’d read it so many times I’d lost count. She agreed that was the best kind of book to have, regardless of cover art.
Anyway, back to the classics. My second classics influence was my college job at the library, which for the first two years, involved a weekly shelving shift. Unless ordered otherwise, I always hit the third floor, because it was lovely and quiet. It also happened to house the British and American literature sections (PR and PS, how I miss thee!).
It being a college library, it was somewhat light on what I’d normally think of as casual reading. (Granted, I did manage to read Stephen King’s The Stand out of the stacks, but that was a pretty serious anomaly.) So instead, I found classics when I was wondering around (when forced to work on the second floor, I found quite a few interesting history books). My shelving shifts are what finally allowed me to finish the complete works of Jane Austen, for which I’m eternally grateful, as Persuasion has ended up being my second favorite Austen book. I also picked up Wuthering Heights (hated it) in that time frame.
The library was great for more modern classics as well. I was able to pick up The English Patient after seeing the movie, and really enjoyed contrasting the two versions of the story. There were also the more random books that I found while preparing the shelving carts. One I still remember (because I made some totally illicit photocopies of my favorite sections) was a book of old Irish poetry in translation. One of these days, I need to find that book again so I can have my own copy. I found it so fascinating to follow the English words on one page, and see opposite the original words, which looked so fascinating to me. That book definitely helped further my mild obsession with the Celtic languages.
On a vaguely related note, source number three of my love of classics is a love of Arthurian based literature I developed in high school and college. By the time I got out of college, I’d started collecting some of the older Arthuriana, including Le Morte d’Arthur, and The History of the Kings of Britain. The second book is also fascinating from a Shakespearean perspective, as it contains some of the earliest source material for King Lear and Cymbeline.
I’ve stopped reading these older classics as frequently as I did straight out of college. The main reason is that they tend to be much heavier reading, and I don’t have the time to do that for enjoyment so much anymore. Most of my reading is done in the half hour to hour before I go to sleep, and literary fluff is often much more appropriate to that time of night. I still read the odd older book (the most recent was Herodotus), but they take me quite a while to go through, and I usually feel like I need to avoid leaping into another one for quite some time after finishing. I still keep them on my reading list though, because I always feel enriched having read them.
So that’s my relative novel about one of the smallest portions of my current reading habits. It’s the portion I have to work for more than any other, but it’s all the more rewarding for that work.