Why Choose to Read The Classics

A friend and I have a running disagreement.  We both adore reading but we disagree on taste.  To him, the act of reading is everything, what is read is immaterial.  I disagree.  Yes, reading is better than illiteracy, but not all written works are equal. Quality is one reason why some works disappear why others are revered and reread for centuries.  This isn’t due to an edict of teachers or a ruling from the some vicious, artsy elite.  It’s because some stories are so well formed they become enduring works of art, works that instruct as well as entertain.  They are the classics and there are good reasons to  they should be read.

  • Classics are the building blocks of literature. Willa Cather once wrote, “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they’d never happened before.” If that’s true, those stories have also become the backbone of world literature but some versions are told so well, they become the standards other writers follow. For example, once The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh jointly created the perfect template for road stories, authors have been stealing from and writing variations on these two ever since.  Here are two heroes  who, for whatever reasons, can’t take the short way back home. Instead, they are waylaid by Gods and demi-Gods, attacked by horrendous creatures, seduced and distracted by incredible females (can you imagine a modern man trying to convince his wife of this story?  ‘Honestly, hon, I was on my home with the milk, when I was kidnapped by nymph!  No, not nymphomaniac, nymph!  Well, she did seem pretty warm for my form but honey, honest, I was true to you. Anyway that’s where I was, for at least seven years.’)  Every hero fighting against nature, every young person on a quest, all the rags-to-riches plots come from classic stories.  If you want to know where literature is going, you have to know where it’s been.  And the road to through the past was paved with literary classics.

  • Characters for the ages – Every few years someone talks about another adaptation of Vanity Fair.   What, you thought Vanity Fair was a just brand of underwear or the name of a magazine? Puh-leeze!  Long before that stuff was sold, the phrase was famous.  Actually, it came from two classics. First was Pilgrim’s Progress, a man on a quest story, and the fair was a place that catered to humanity’s basest hungers. Then Thackeray used it as a title for his wonderful “novel without a hero”.  Here is one of lit’s greatest anti-heroines, the aptly named Becky Sharp. In a society stuffed to the gills with rogues, thieves and crooks, Becky is the girl to watch. She lies, steals, seduces and blackmails her way up the ladder of society and the best part of it is, we love watching her doing it. Thackeray was smart enough to create a “good-girl” character to serve as a counterpart and a plot that frustrates some of Becky’s plans but Vanity Fair gets read and re-read because people adore Becky Sharp. She’s adventurous, amoral, smart and the last person you want to meet in real life but she’s a wonder on the page.  
  • It’s a matter of mind-nutrition. Look, we all have limited time to read.  And books nurture the mind and the soul.  So, why spend your time and money on candy-floss stories with dimensionless characters and pointless plots?  Pick up something with real substance and flavor to it, like Their Eyes were Watching God.  For subtlety, take a gander at Howard’s End.  Shoot, pick up the Bible or Shakespeare and absorb some of that marvelous language.  No, it’s not how people talk today but it is how they feel and look how imagery and rhythm are packed into each line! You learn poetry, philosophy and art with every scene and psalm. These are the words that stick with you, the ones that offer comfort when you are in despair and counsel when you’re confused.  
  • Economics Classics in the public domain can often be bought at a cheaper price. Not all, because the list is always expanding but when I was younger and the budget was tight, I learned to shop the classics shelf first.  They were cheaper than the best-sellers and, almost always, a terrific story.  Classics are the best bang for the buck.

I’m not saying everyone should limit their reading to books sanctified by narrow group of people. Great stories, like great cooking can come from any place on the globe.  But it’s ridiculous to avoid reading quality work because it’s considered a “classic”.  That would be like refusing diamonds from Tiffany’s so you can wear rhinestones instead.

    Shining a Light in the Dark

    Biographies can be such intrusive things.  Say an individual manages, through talent, work and luck, to make something good, something worth remembering.  Now, that’s a difficult, desirable achievement but the is the world satisfied with it? No. When something wonderful is created, some Nosy Parker of a biographer will follow behind, trying to uncover the life and soul of the creator.  On the other hand, a good biography, like Judy Oppenheimer’s Private Demons, can answer questions and provide context to that person’s accomplishments.  The subject here is Shirley Jackson and Ms. Oppenheimer’s tale illuminates a few corners of this complicated, compelling, and private writer.

    To enjoy Shirley Jackson’s work you must be comfortable with complexity.  In the middle of the twentieth century, she became an acclaimed writer in two genres that seemed mutually exclusive.  The best known samples of her work are psychologically disturbing stories of alienation and evil. However, she also published popular stories of domestic recounted in a well-humored, dry and ironic voice.  In a culture that likes to pigeon-hole the work of its creative artists, Shirley defied easy categorization to the consternation of some of her fans. Could the same person write stories in turn that made you chuckle or scared you silly?  If not, which was the “real” Shirley Jackson?

    Naturally, the answers are “yes” and “both” but Judy Oppenheimer’s book goes a long way toward explaining how that happened.  Shirley was an introvertive, creative girl born to socially-minded, conservative parents. By continually trying to re-focus their eccentric daughter into conventional channels, the Jacksons created a quasi rebel.  Shirley could disregard her parents’ expectations but she never stopped craving their approval.  Sadly, validation was something they couldn’t give and the process produced an insecure daughter, aware of and uncomfortable with many cultural values while she resentfully followed others.  The result: an alienated soul, perhaps doomed to be a writer.
    An adult Shirley created the home life she would have preferred as a child and the joys of that more tolerant world appear in her domestic fiction.  Yet, Ms. Jackson’s true gift is not that she created good work in different genres but how she used bits of each to highlight the other. The possibility of unseen forces runs through her domestic work the same way dry humor appears in her Gothic fiction.  One of points this biography makes is that Shirley excelled in both areas because she was as comfortable in the shadowy, interior world of the supernatural as the milieu of a housewife and mother.   

    Through witnesses, Judy Oppenheimer tracks down the events that informed Shirley’s fiction: Holocaust stories, her own tenure in a New England village and her husband’s study of folk rituals all set the stage for The Lottery; the disappearance of a local college student influenced a short story and one of her novels and the progressive isolation in We Have Always Lived at the Castle resulted in Shirley’s own bout of agoraphobia. 

    Well-researched and thoughtfully written, Private Demons helped stimulate a resurgence of interest in Ms. Jackson’s work and in the end, her work is what’s important.  Still, Private Demons is worth reading. It’s the portrait of someone who, however burdened, never gave up on her work or on herself.

    Reconsidering My Cousin Rachel

    It’s funny how some writers go in and out of style. Some storytellers are flaming hot properties in one decade, and out of print in the next.  You never can tell who will outlast their lifetimes.  Taylor Caldwell, Edna Ferber and Thomas Chastain were royalty on the mid-century best-seller list, but I doubt if they’re remembered at all today beyond Ferber’s writing the source novel for Showboat.  Daphne du Maurier fares a little better because of Rebecca and because a biography suggesting she was a lesbian but beyond that and a couple of short stories that were adapted into films, her name doesn’t ring many bells.   That’s a shame because she was a prolific writer with more than thirty books to her credit and no one else created “mood” with words as well as she did.  If you think I’m thinking of Rebecca again, I’m not.  Her greatest “atmospheric” novel is, for me, My Cousin, Rachel.
    Rachel is a novel about the damage caused by doubt.  In the beginning, Ambrose Ashley and his nephew Philip are completely sure of their spots in the world.  Ambrose is the master of a Cornish estate and the guardian of Philip, his heir.  Their lives are bound by the responsibilities and rewards of landed gentry and the largest difficulty is Ambrose’s rheumatism that acts up during the winter. Ambrose leaves to spend the coldest months in Italy and soon Philip starts getting letters from his uncle mentioning a widowed cousin in Florence named Rachel. Rachel is clever, Rachel’s good company, Rachel was poorly treated by her late husband…the letters go on and on until Ambrose announces he’s married Cousin Rachel.  Instantly, Philip’s place in the world is overturned by a woman he hasn’t even met. Rachel keeps his only real family far away and her child could disinherit him. Reason enough for Philip to dislike her but then Ambrose joins in his doubts. Soon, Ambrose is writing of his deteriorating health and untrustworthy doctors and finally states, “…Rachel is my torment.”  Philip goes to Italy as fast as he can but it’s too late. Ambrose is dead by the time he arrives and Cousin Rachel is gone.
    Daphne du Maurier
    Although everyone else agrees Ambrose’s death was caused by a brain tumor, Philip suspects his cousin, Rachel, committed murder. No one is more surprised to learn, when they finally meet, that Rachel is exactly as Ambrose first described her. She is  kind, good-humored and unselfish and Philip begins to question his beliefs. After he and Rachel start sharing their common grief, Philip starts falling in love. Rachel is grateful for Philip’s presents but she doesn’t return his romantic feelings. He gives her still more extravagant presents, as proof of his devotion, but these don’t change her mind. Misunderstandings and mischance start to increase as Philip’s obsession with Rachel grows until, like his late uncle, he realizes, “Rachel is my torment.” But Philip never determines and neither do we if Rachel is a good or evil person.  Is she an innocent victim of poor judgment and circumstances or she a guileful manipulator? Does she take advantage of Philip or do his actions actually dictate hers? The author leaves us without any easy answers.
    The themes of duality and obsession run through Daphne du Maurier’s work; perhaps that’s what continues to keep them relevant. Our world runs over with love-hate relationships and obsession is honored as much as it’s vilified. Maybe the world of today accepts a few more shades of grey. If so, it is due in some part to this obsessive writer who spent much of her life in Cornwall and chose ambiguity as her badge of honor.  Lady Browning, a/k/a Dame du Maurier, we are in your debt.

    A Modern World filled with Ancient Gods?

    Like I said last week, every civilization develops its own mythology to answer its questions and confront its fears. As the needs of the culture change, so change the heroes we worship. So, what happens to the older gods when these newer icons are developed? Do they resent being forced into retirement or do they  transcend to a Sun City section of Mount Olympus where they can play endless rounds of shuffleboard and bore each other with photos of their descendants?  Did Odin develop a sub-section of Valhalla to house superannuated deities?  Is there an AARP for Gods?  You might think that’s a funny idea for a story but it’s actually a question Neil Gaiman posed when he wrote American Gods.  It’s also an English novelist’s perspective of America and a brilliant fantasy novel.
    At the center of the story is Shadow Moon, a man with a past who once thought he had a future.  Instead, his wife and secure job die shortly before he can reach them and a man named Wednesday offers him work. Shadow is the perfect hero for this kind of adventure: he’s quiet, tough and shrewder than most folks realize.  Shadow is the kind of man Bogart played in the movies but he isn’t fighting the standard cops or robbers.  Instead, he and his new boss embark on a road trip filled with fights, kidnap and intrigue and they keep running into the oddest people.  Hey, it’s what you’ve got to expect when you go to work for an Ancient God.
    Because Mr. Wednesday is a God or at least an American version of one.  Gaiman’s underlying idea is that when immigrants flooded what is now the U. S., they brought the old deities with them. This might have worked for a generation or two but a New Country worships different things and the New Gods have taken over. Odin and Ibis have been replaced by Tech Boy (the quintessential computer geek complete with a Matrix coat and bad acne) and Media, a Lucy Ricardo goddess who can be truly terrifying. There are lots of other super-beings, both old and new, and half of the fun of this book is realizing which one of the odd-balls is really a deity in retirement. Thing is, Mr. Wednesday wants the Old Ones to band together and kick the New Gods out of existence. Shadow’s job in this mess is to sort out who the real good and bad guys are and stop the carnage before it’s too late.
    Yes, most of the characters in the tale are used to being worshipped but Shadow is the quintessential American Archetype of a Hero: he’s the loner who adheres to no moral code save his own and he’s on an unforgiving road to redemption. This hero never asks much for himself; instead others end up requesting his help. When he tries to give it to them, he’s often forced to break rules in order to do what’s right. This guy’s the outsider who takes on the corrupt political machine, the reporter or lawyer who won’t give up on a cause. If you like cowboys, Shadow is like Shane. If detective stories are your thing, think Sam Spade.  Shadow is one of these lonely guy/heroes and we’re lucky he has a sense of humor as well as sense because we see what happens through his eyes.
    A word to parents: although this is by the man that wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, American Gods is not for kids.  It’s a huge, adult fantasy that snapped up some big time awards and now Starz is bringing the story to film.  It’s a big read, and a worthwhile one, but it’s a fantasy novel for adults.  Catch my drift?  I hope so.
    This country has never been a place that likes to slow down. Americans are always searching for the Next Big Thing.  So maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, a smart person willing to watch, like de Tocqueville or Gaiman, to give us a good analysis of our own culture.  It’s not an easy task because we’re the result of a billion different influences and, like I said, we tend to keep moving.  But, whatever our faults, we’re a dynamic society where there’s still room for opportunity.  As long as that’s true, we’ll remain the Goldene Medina for immigrants.  Even Immigrant Gods.

    A Modern World filled with Ancient Gods?

    Like I said last week, every civilization develops its own mythology to answer its questions and confront its fears. As the needs of the culture change, so change the heroes we worship. So, what happens to the older gods when these newer icons are developed? Do they resent being forced into retirement or do they  transcend to a Sun City section of Mount Olympus where they can play endless rounds of shuffleboard and bore each other with photos of their descendants?  Did Odin develop a sub-section of Valhalla to house superannuated deities?  Is there an AARP for Gods?  You might think that’s a funny idea for a story but it’s actually a question Neil Gaiman posed when he wrote American Gods.  It’s also an English novelist’s perspective of America and a brilliant fantasy novel.
    At the center of the story is Shadow Moon, a man with a past who once thought he had a future.  Instead, his wife and secure job die shortly before he can reach them and a man named Wednesday offers him work. Shadow is the perfect hero for this kind of adventure: he’s quiet, tough and shrewder than most folks realize.  Shadow is the kind of man Bogart played in the movies but he isn’t fighting the standard cops or robbers.  Instead, he and his new boss embark on a road trip filled with fights, kidnap and intrigue and they keep running into the oddest people.  Hey, it’s what you’ve got to expect when you go to work for an Ancient God.
    Because Mr. Wednesday is a God or at least an American version of one.  Gaiman’s underlying idea is that when immigrants flooded what is now the U. S., they brought the old deities with them. This might have worked for a generation or two but a New Country worships different things and the New Gods have taken over. Odin and Ibis have been replaced by Tech Boy (the quintessential computer geek complete with a Matrix coat and bad acne) and Media, a Lucy Ricardo goddess who can be truly terrifying. There are lots of other super-beings, both old and new, and half of the fun of this book is realizing which one of the odd-balls is really a deity in retirement. Thing is, Mr. Wednesday wants the Old Ones to band together and kick the New Gods out of existence. Shadow’s job in this mess is to sort out who the real good and bad guys are and stop the carnage before it’s too late.
    Yes, most of the characters in the tale are used to being worshipped but Shadow is the quintessential American Archetype of a Hero: he’s the loner who adheres to no moral code save his own and he’s on an unforgiving road to redemption. This hero never asks much for himself; instead others end up requesting his help. When he tries to give it to them, he’s often forced to break rules in order to do what’s right. This guy’s the outsider who takes on the corrupt political machine, the reporter or lawyer who won’t give up on a cause. If you like cowboys, Shadow is like Shane. If detective stories are your thing, think Sam Spade.  Shadow is one of these lonely guy/heroes and we’re lucky he has a sense of humor as well as sense because we see what happens through his eyes.
    A word to parents: although this is by the man that wrote Coraline and The Graveyard Book, American Gods is not for kids.  It’s a huge, adult fantasy that snapped up some big time awards and now Starz is bringing the story to film.  It’s a big read, and a worthwhile one, but it’s a fantasy novel for adults.  Catch my drift?  I hope so.
    This country has never been a place that likes to slow down. Americans are always searching for the Next Big Thing.  So maybe it takes an outsider’s perspective, a smart person willing to watch, like de Tocqueville or Gaiman, to give us a good analysis of our own culture.  It’s not an easy task because we’re the result of a billion different influences and, like I said, we tend to keep moving.  But, whatever our faults, we’re a dynamic society where there’s still room for opportunity.  As long as that’s true, we’ll remain the Goldene Medina for immigrants.  Even Immigrant Gods.