Recently, I’ve gone through a personal renaissance of sorts. I wouldn’t say I’m a changed man, just that I’m doing certain things that the high school version of me would’ve absolutely hated. (I still laugh at people slipping and falling on black ice, don’t worry).
As I detailed in my WWFIL piece a month or so back, I generally hated reading in high school. I hated the Brontë sisters with the passion of a thousand suns (one of those thousand, I’m honest enough to admit, was ignorant to enough to think that the author’s name was actually Jane Eyre). I couldn’t even lift Moby Dick. If we needed an incredibly abridged version to even get through the text (ahem, Mr. Dickens), I was out.
Even the ones I liked, I don’t remember reading and enjoying as fully as I enjoy books nowadays. That largely had to do with the fact that there was other classwork, tight deadlines, papers, Danielle from chemistry class, Yankee games, and exams that seemed to emphasize an ability to memorize and spit out rather than retain and enjoy.
Today, I’m happy to say I’m free of all those burdens. No more classwork or deadlines or papers or exams. The Yankees are important, but not as much as they were then to me. And Danielle hates my guts.
With all that in mind, in the past year I decided I was going to try to revisit some of these classics. I’m not sure all of these were on my high school reading lists, but they’re all in that same category.
Here’s my list, thus far: The Great Gatsby, The Great American Novel, Breakfast of Champions, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Franny & Zooey, Catch 22, and The Color Purple.
Here’s how it’s broken down, in the order listed above: Worth the while, couldn’t finish, good but too long, too childish, good, couldn’t finish, and haven’t gotten to just yet.
Now, I’m not going to draw any everlasting conclusions from an experiment this limited in scope and time, but I do think there’s something worth exploring here.
I’m a fairly intelligent guy and for the life of me, I couldn’t get through Catch 22 or The Great American Novel. And yes, before you ask, I gave each at least 75 pages (Side note: That’s how you know the whole agent/publishing game is a little backwards, when they’re making blanket decisions on books/careers based on 10 pages. I get it, logistically, but still). The point is, those books bored me to tears. I struggled to get to wherever I even did in those and I’d safely say the last 20 to 30% was just me forcing it.
And the question is, why? Because someone said they’re classics? I hate to keep making movie references in each of these columns, but it’s like when you hate a movie that everyone loves (Godfather, for me) but pretend to like it just so you don’t have to hear the backlash for even attempting to have your own opinion.
Just because literary types are supposedly more sophisticated than film types, doesn’t mean you should have to go by what they’ve deemed as “classic”. If the waiter at a restaurant suggests you order something because he or she really enjoys it, that doesn’t mean you’re automatically going to as well, right? Sure, they may know the food/chef better than you do, but who knows your preferences best?#
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these works aren’t either A) very enjoyable or B) very important. Something like The Great Gatsby, in my opinion, isn’t as fun to read in current society because of how incredibly important it actually is.
Basically, the concept of the anti-hero that Jay Gatsby so admirably portrayed was one readers hadn’t really seen prior to the book’s publication. It was an interesting mix, this guy we weren’t sure if we should be rooting for or against. However, it’s precisely because of how important that book and that literary device have become that’s robbed The Great Gatsby. I read that book and thoroughly enjoyed it, but its greatness is now such a part of the American literary and cinematic fabric that it barely registered upon reading.
I’m not going to detail my thoughts on each of the others I’ve read, because that runs counter to my long-winded point.
(Get to it, already!)
And that point is, read what you want. If you’re enjoying Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel, more power to you.
Just don’t read it because someone said it’s a classic.