Classic Dummy

My mother’s almost seventy and she’s doing something she’s never done before: she’s reading this book. Actually, it’s much bigger than just reading Tolstoy’s epic saga – it’s reading the classics in general. We discussed the tome several weeks ago and her excitement was infectious. I think she was as invigorated by the story as she was by accomplishing the task.

It’s one of several streams that have converged in me.

I’ve been savoring Stephen Koch’s The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop. Early on, he confronts the common excuse about not having enough time to read.

The real culprit here is almost never your schedule. It is your boredom – your boredom with the books you think you are supposed to read. Find a book you want, a book that gives you real trembling excitement, a book that is hot in your hands, and you’ll have time galore. All serious education necessarily involves a certain amount of obligatory reading. This is how it has to be and exactly how it ought to be. Yet this essential aspect of growth does have a dangerous downside. It can darken all reading under the dull shadow of obligation. In a certain moment in your life as a writer, you should resolve to read only what matters to you. Not what people say should matter. What does. You should seek that out relentlessly, find it, and then read and read and read.

For a while, I’ve been laboring under “obligatory reading.” Somewhere along the way I embraced this common notion that writers should stay current in the genre they are writing. As a result, I’ve been slogging through books that have left me, well, bored. Please, this is not an indictment of the current market as much as an indication of my station in life. Nevertheless, Koch fingered an important dynamic at work in me.

Then there's the “Wicked Wit of the East.” Noel DeVries is one of my youthful critique partners and occasional blog commentator. While other teens are posing in the mall and posterizing their bedrooms with the latest boy bands, Noel is busy reading Trollope and Virgil. Her literary knowledge puts me to shame. She has, unintentionally, reminded me of someone I want to be when I grow up.

But I think my recent interview with Mark Bertrand is what finally pushed me over the edge. In fact, it was this quote:

My advice to readers who want to grow is simple. Put a hold on contemporary books. Put a hold on genre books. Nothing wrong with them, but set them aside for the moment and focus on a few of the big awful books everyone talks about and nobody reads, the ones you will have only encountered in school. Read them for pleasure not for class, and you'll be surprised at how different they seem. Read Dickens. Read Jane Austen. Read Henry James. Read Balzac and George Eliot and Chekhov and Oscar Wilde. Read some twentieth-century authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. They'll be so different from one another it might seem like they have nothing in common, but when you return to your regular reading, you'll find that they do. They will have challenged you and stretched you. And they'll serve as good guides through the underworld of contemporary letters...

You gotta love Bertrand – one minute he’s talking about the Pixies, and the next, "the underworld of contemporary letters."

By now, my mind was made up. The contemporary stuff is going on hold in favor of "the big awful books."

I started a thread over at the Faith in Fiction Discussion Board entitled, Reading the Classics: for Dummies. Therein I exposed my ignorance and ponied up to the bar. The clan over there is quite gracious and I’ve received lots of terrific advice. As expected, there’s no consensus on where one starts such an endeavor. And there’s even disagreement on how “classic” some of the classics really are. Maybe that’s as it should be. But I like Noel’s advice. In a post to Penwrights, she said:

Mike, is there a book you've heard of all your life ... David Copperfield, War and Peace, The Brothers K ...? Start there. Start with something that stirs your interest, something you can close with satisfaction and say, "Hey, I've read that. And my life is richer, now, too!"

So, from the four corners, wending their way to my humble abode are Great Expectations, Stories of Anton Chekhov, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I purchased most of them in the small Oxford World's Classics Hardcovers editions as recommended by Mark. And I got a perfect place for them. Hey, I had to start somewhere. I don’t want to wait till I’m seventy to read the great books. My hope is that, by reading the greats I will become a better writer. Either way, I’m tired of being a Classic Dummy.


Victoria Gaines said...

Oh, my. This is just so rich. Exactly the thing I needed to read this morning to push me over the edge. Mike, thanks for another excellent post. It's given me permission to get back to reading the "good stuff." I'd grown a little weary of the obligatory reading that does, indeed, bore you to death sometimes.

lindaruth said...

Good for you, Mike. There's a lot of the great books I've never read, but I've got my daughter's copy of Flannery O'Connor's short stories sitting on the desk by my bed (along with a big volume of Harlan Ellison's short stories I checked out of the library) to educate my short story sensibilities. I just need to start reading them. :) (I know, maybe some won't consider Ellison in the same league as O'Connor, but I've always enjoyed his writing.)

And when I was reading the FiF discussion about classics I thought of some (but didn't bother to post): I enjoyed several books by Jules Verne and I loved Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. I read them when I was a kid and they were so much fun. They're not Tolstoy, but Verne and both father and son Dumas wrote rousing good tales.

Good reading.

Heather Smith said...

I've been interspersing my "to read" list with a few classics. I've always loved "Pride and Prejudice" and "Oliver Twist" Yeah, I was the nerd who liked the "to read" list at school! But I've been going back and reading them, and I enjoy them so much more now that there isn't a test looming! Great post, Mike. And many apologies for showing off before!! LOL!

siouxsiepoet said...

so glad to hear it mike. a comment i read in bly was, put intellect aside. this has been in my cooker a great while, because his point was we tend to mimic and dull our true voice. that is my big gripe with being up on the "genre" reading. if most of what is coming out is crap (plain and simple), then why do i want to read that? but my classic reads tend to be more along the lines of merton, st. john, the mystics. i have very little time for fiction. too much non for me, i've piles of them all around. a great prod to my derrier is return dates at the library. i ILL lots of things, usually from dusty old seminaries, and they must go back when called for. being a deadline creature, this works for me. because when i buy a book, i tend to pick up everything with a deadline first to be sure i get it read, and lately, i've not bought books i haven't read first and can't live without. there is a thing called having too many books. i'm collecting specific works which speak to my soul.


Yours Truly said...

Well, actually, the only thing I've read of Trollope's is this ...

"Book love, my friend, is your pass to the greatest, the purest, and the most perfect pleasure that God has prepared for His creatures. It lasts when all other pleasures fade. It will support you when all other recreations are gone. It will last until your death. It will make your hours pleasant to you as long as you live."


Vicki said...

Mentioned your interveiw with Mir in my post today at Light for the Writer's Soul. Stop by sometime before decomposing further:-)

Gina Holmes said...

It will be interesting to see if your writing improves after you begin to read these books.

I feel like my writing took an unexpected leap after I finished PLR, and Charles Martin's latest.

The proof will be in the literary pudding. Interesting experiment.

I want to read the award winners. That's the bee in my bonnet right now, starting with Gilead. If I can ever finish these last 3 books I HAVE to read for contest and review purposes.

Sandy Cathcart said...

Interesting post Mike. I was scrambling through my office trying to find a book written by a Harvest House editor recommending classics, but alas, it is too buried. It's scary just looking around my office, so I'm back at the keyboard, safer here!

I have very little predjudice when it comes to reading. If I'm reading a boring book, I find myself trying to figure out just what makes it so boring, although there are some books I simply cannot get to the end of. And, yes, I admit it, there is a lot of Christian fiction that is totally unreadable.

Books on tape (from the library) is a wonderful way to do a lot of the classics. I just love hearing them read with a British accent. But then, I live in the boonies, so I have a lot of time on the road or when I'm at my easel to listen to such things.

I also used to really like George MacDonald's books as edited by Michael R. Phillips. Although, I haven't read those books in a long time, but they fascinated me so much that I bought every one and they're sitting on my shelf. Some were totally boring but I read on because there were such fascinating aspects of God woven throughout.

Congratulations also on heading to the writers conference. I won't be there, that's my time in the Oregon Wilderness, but my prayers are with you!

Janet Rubin said...

I've been seeking advice from a brilliant friend, Phil. He told me, "For tutelage on travelogue, read The Odyssey. Much action, occasional epiphanies. Also The Aeneid. Lots of struggle for small bits of wisdom, explained sparingly by a man who didn't want to lose his audience in explanation. You don't want to read The Odyssey and The Aeneid? I don't blame you. But all the great plots have been written, and we latter day scribes are just borrowers."
Ugh, am I going to hop on your classic train?

Yours Truly said...

Janet, you reminded me of a delicious quote from "Emily of New Moon." Sorry to hog space with something irrelevant, Mike, but I feel like laughing.

"My epic," said Emily, diligently devouring plum cake, "is about a very beautiful high-born girl who was stolen away from her real parents when she was a baby and brought up in a woodcutter's hut."

"One av of the seven original plots in the world," murmured Father Cassidy.


"Nothing. Just a bad habit av thinking aloud. Go on."

"She had a lover of high degree but his family did not want him to marry her because she was only a woodcutter's daughter-"

"Another of the seven plots - excuse me."

"-so they sent him away to the Holy land on a crusade and word came back that he was killed and the Editha - her name was Editha - went into a convent-"

Emily paused for a bite of plum cake and Father Cassidy took up the strain.

"And now her lover comes back very much alive, though covered in Paymin scars, and the secret av her birth is discovered through the dying confession av the old nurse and the birthmark on her arm."

"How did you know?" gasped Emily in amazement.

"Oh, I guessed it. I'm a good guesser..."


Mike Duran said...

Noel, just because I referenced you in my post does not give you permission to "hog space with something irrelevant." You may be classically literate, but your blog manners are atrocious!

Yours Truly said...

Sniff, sniff.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me ... though I may go join a convent.