Today during my lunch break I read How to Eat Fried Worms. Yesterday I read Sideways Stories from Wayside School and M.M. Kaye’s The Ordinary Princess. The day before, I read two books by Andrew Clemens. I’ve been doing a lot of rereading lately. I’ve been reading some comic books. Occasionally I’ll read a murder mystery. I haven’t read anything that could qualify as classic literature since about a year before I finished college. (Don’t tell the professors.)
It’s not that I dislike the classics. I just need a break. A long, long break.
My friends don’t get it, because my friends, like me, are all English majors. Look. When I was twelve, all I wanted to read was Shakespeare and Gulliver’s Travels and 1984. Then I went to school. What you have to understand, here, is that I went to a classical education, college-preparatory middle and high school. That’s seven years of education all about classic literature. I can recite Julius Caesar in my sleep, guys. And don’t even get me started on Cyrano de Bergerac. Do you want the Aeneid in Latin or English?
And then four years as an English major? I am litted out, man. I mean, come on, that’s eleven straight years of classics. That is Too Many Years of classics, even for the most classically minded of people—a category that used to include me, but now I’m the girl loading up on deliberately crappy YA romance while my friends dedicate summers to the study of Ulysses.
And I’m kind of mad, I think, that the combined efforts of a bunch of teachers ruined something I loved. It bugs me a lot that by my last year of school, I couldn’t put myself through the torture of finishing the assigned reading, when I used to consistently read the entire book on the first night, no matter what it was.
But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I think most of the blame goes to the classics themselves. One of the things that really bothered me senior year was all the bits and pieces of things we read. Like, if you don’t think a book is good enough to fit into your teaching schedule in its entirety, why are you wasting my time on it? No matter how good the book was originally you’re not going to get anywhere close to its true value just reading parts. It’s like turning off the volume, blocking off all but an inch of the TV screen, and trying to tell someone what the movie was about.
The problem is we’re not being asked to read a lot of these books, especially as we move forward in literary history, for the sake of the story, the characters, or a lot of the time, even the thematic elements. It’s all about the cultural significance. And if you’ve heard me go off about folklore at all, you know I’m all about the cultural significance. But if you think I’m going to devote hours upon hours to hundreds of pages of absolute crap, just because no one before James Joyce ever wrote crap in a certain style, you have got another thing coming.
Screw the classics. I’m not going to respect you for being innovative if you can’t also be good. No one can even read Finnigan’s Wake, guys. Why do we applaud something unreadable? If it wasn’t written by James Joyce, no one would think it was worth anything.
And how on earth do people decide what’s going to be a contemporary classic? Like, Jeffrey Eugenides. Did you read The Virgin Suicides? I did. Did you throw up after? I did.
There’s a certain category of books that are valued merely by virtue of being old, or unique, or even sad, as if something is worth historical preservation merely because it sucks. Are you ever, in your private life, reading for the sake of your own enjoyment, going to go out looking for a book where all the characters are immensely unlikeable? Where everyone struggles and suffers and dies with nothing at the end to show for it? A book so dense it takes you an hour to get through a page? A book so stylistically unique that you finish it completely uncertain what actually happened, what was an extended metaphor, and what came up in your nightmares last night?
I think I’m pretty much done feeling guilty for preferring to surround myself with relatable characters and hopeful stories. Because I’m down with Homer, and Austen, and even Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sure. Whatever. But I can’t read them anymore either, because I’ve been attacked from so many sides for so many years with the stilted, classroom versions of them, that suck all the life out, that look deeply for meaning and relevance and dismiss the beauty right on the surface. But the more contemporary a classic gets, the less likely it is to have any value outside of a classroom setting. Here are the themes, here all the styles, here are the cultural and historical backgrounds so you can comfortably dissect the work; why would you want to bother with character and plot and the big picture when everything comes together, when this is so convenient.
It’s about writing, not about storytelling, and I am always, always here for the story. Give me characters that mess up and try to fix things. Give me a terrible world where there’s still a chance to survive, to live, maybe even to turn things around. Give me crappy dialogue and cheap paperbacks and spelling mistakes, give me characters who love and hate and can be loved and hated, settings that I can see in the background without straining my eyes, looking for the other level of meaning, give me something completely unbelievable as long as it can still be fun, I don’t care. Just give me a real story. Give me something I can feel. I’m so sick of my joy being turned into textbooks.