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.