Ok, here comes an ignoramus advocating for the traditional canon of literature. No, seriously, I’ve never loved traditions of any kind: too often they’re just excuses avoid thinking for yourself. And I really never loved the literary classics. In fact, I think it was Pride and Prejudice that ruined the very idea of a canon when I read it in a Masterpieces of Lit class about twenty-five years ago. I hated it so much I eschewed the entire nineteenth century for as long as I could.
The older stuff was even worse; I signed up for Medieval Lit and dropped it after two weeks, signed up for Renaissance Lit the next year and dropped that too. I did what grad students are inclined to do. I read the kinds of books I liked, the kinds of books I wanted to write. In my case that meant the short fiction then ascendent: Carver, Wolff, Ford, Dubus, Barthleme, Barth, Coover, Paley, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, Mary Robison. The shorter and more contemporary, the better. Somehow I did manage to read Shakespeare’s greatest hits for a semester or two, and seven or eight Faulkner novels. (They’re now the apotheosis of brain fog). But, mostly left to my own devices, I graduated with a writing degree knowing very little about anything other then short contemporary fiction. That was not smart.
Now, nearly twenty-five later, I find myself reading the books my high school age grandson is reading. Yes, the canonical chestnuts. Why now? Two reasons:
1) I’ve been working on something for a long time and I don’t want to be unduly influenced by popular, contemporary trends or voices. I’m weak-minded, and a bit of a mimic too. So, I’m reading things nobody would try to imitate.
2.) It can’t be good for you to stay ignorant forever. It just can’t.
Maybe it’s my age, but I’m not quite as impatient as I once was with books, nor as sure of my own judgment. It’s frightening. I’m almost becoming thoughtful. No. Really. For the past few winters I’ve been catching up a little. I finally read Moby Dick a couple years ago (terrific: learned how to fillet a whale---if I ever get one to rise to a dry fly), The Iliad (What’s not to like about hacking and hewing limbs off people?), Jane Eyre (loved it, loved her), Tom Jones (hilarious). I’m slogging through Wuthering Heights right now (Dithering Heights is more like it, but that’s another story). Others. I didn’t love everything old and revered, but I had enough patience now to appreciate the skill and the art in them. And very recently I discovered another reason they’re still out there being read.
On the lam from the Alaskan weather, I went to live, mostly alone, in Phoenix, Arizona, this past winter. The house had been my mother-in-law’s for many years, but she’s now 96 and living in a nursing home. I have to keep it maintained. My mother-in-law has been a packrat of epic proportions all her life. I spent several dusty, spider-fearing days going through three aluminum storage sheds in her back yard holding the excess inventory of things she didn’t need but wouldn’t throw away: pieces of old kitchen appliances, pieces of old furniture, pieces of weaving implements from a mid-life yarn habit she’d finally kicked in her eighties, an old-fashioned leather suitcase full of musty Arizona Highways magazines stained with rainwater and mouse pee. Everything had been baked by decades of Arizona summers. It was pretty bad. Even the spiders had moved out.
Her old books, however, were safe inside her house in a wall of shelves I built for her about thirty years ago when I was first dating her daughter, now my wife. My mother-in-law had read some of them as a young girl in school, eighty years ago and more: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s and Longfellow’s poems, fiction from the moderns still alive when she read them: Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Some names I didn’t recognize.
Days I wrote, and worked on the house. Each afternoon I risked my life jay-walking across the four-laned Glendale Avenue to the Safeway store and brought home things I felt like making into dinner that night. I listened to NPR news while I cooked, and had a cocktail or two. In the lonely evenings, I caught up on some long overdue reading (I have a hunch really well-read people have no friends and don’t get laid much.) On my mother-in-law’s old shelves, the first spine that caught my eye was Tale of Two Cities. I seem to remember a film version from my eleventh-grade English class. Actually, I remember a lovely girl named Darina-something who ran out of the room when the guillotine started falling on aristo necks. Reading the book now I found only one passage that sounded familiar. One of the male characters (maybe Carton, the dissipated but valiant lawyer who sacrifices his own life for Charles Darnay) was said to be vain about his shapely legs. Today it would be his abs.
But here’s the thing about this: At the core of the book the enduring questions it raises about human behavior still matter. In fact, they never mattered more than now. Madame DeFarge and the revolutionaries started out to dethrone the oppressive aristocracy, but mutated into a murderous Palinesque death-panel that no amount of health insurance could save you from as it kept feeding the guillotine to justify its existence.
On public radio, the news had shifted from the repercussions of the shooting in nearby Tucson to a revolution then underway in Egypt. When Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down, the news people kept saying, “The question is, ‘Who is in charge?’” Would the fearsome Muslim Brotherhood, or some other potentially dangerous group take control of the country, become as blood-hungry as the “sans culottes?” No one knew how it would turn out. It sounded like a novel.
It was the first week of February, 2011; I was sitting in a small room I’d built onto that house in Phoenix in 1981, reading a book I should’ve read in school circa 1966 in Niagara Falls, and listening to voices from Cairo by way of NPR in Washington talking about the same ideas Dickens had considered in London in 1859, as he wrote a fictionalized account of events that happened in Paris in the 1780’s.
This is why we have a canon of literature. Not because the books have been declared “the best” by some hegemonic cabal of powerful literati, but because they continue to be relevant. Now the question is, “Who’s reading them anymore?”
Times change. Sure. Not too many men today will admit to being vain of leg. Ok, maybe RuPaul, but not too many lawyers. Still, once you get past the overstuffed nineteenth century verbiage and the melodramatic love story, that high school level classic still has something to say to us, even to a twenty-first century digital boy like me.
Part Two: How the classics can help us in the writing program.
This Week's Blogger: