Friday, June 5, 2009

On (Not) Reading the Classics

I’m writing this entry for purely therapeutic reasons. It’s about an ongoing issue that I feel I have no control over, so putting it out into cyberspace might somehow, magically, transform it for me.

It’s about my reading life, which is constantly being blighted by my television life. I want to read the classics. That’s an abstract wish, but when I try to put it into practice my body and mind rebel.

(I know that this whole categorisation is a subject of scholarly dispute – for the purposes of this article, I’ll rather randomly define ‘the classics’ as any work of fiction popular enough to be in a cheap paperback edition at least 30 years after its original publication.)

Apart from those I read at school and uni, I have plodded through quite a few of them over the years (although perhaps sleep walked is a better term: what happened in The Brothers Karamazov, vols 1 and 2, and War and Peace? I couldn’t even give you the barest plot synopsis, except that the former is about addiction, a priest dies at the beginning and the brothers fight [I think] and the latter is about the Napoleonic wars and the fortunes of an upper class family and some soldiers). All those words, and so little recalled.

So what’s the problem, apart from a poor memory? Soon after I start to read a classic text, it gets too dense and I go off to the library and borrow a contemporary novel.

There are many exceptions, particularly Romantic novels filled with overblown emotion. I read Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment again a few years ago and was amazed at their emotional power. I can happily chomp through George Eliot.

Some Thomas Hardy, a tiny bit of Stendhal (again with not much plot recall), Balzac and Zola are okay, Dickens I like but any work of his takes a long time to get through. When I find a cheap edition of Vanity Fair I’ll get around to that – I already know something of the story of Becky from the miniseries, which helps.

Part of the problem is the cheap editions I tend to buy. The paper is yellow, the type tiny – not a very attractive proposition, especially at night when I do the bulk of my reading.

So what do I want to read or reread?

Currently I’m taking Kafka’s The Trial in small doses. I’ve borrowed a beautifiul hardback edition from the library. It has a nifty little page finder, text in a nice, good-sized font, and thick white paper. But I can only read small chunks at a time. The images are very strong but I’m experiencing too much of the hero’s bewilderment and sense of disorientation for comfort. And of course it’s a translation: however good, a translation is likely to be a bit dry compared with the original.

I have a cheap edition of Byron’s Don Juan and think it will be a sin if I never read this. It’s like wasting someone else’s genius. I have tried fruitlessly to put myself in the position of the typical female reader of the time: this spicy book would have been considered highly risque, liable to send me into paroxysms of passion that would cause me to madly wield my fan and take pinches of snuff. Perhaps if I could view it as a page turner I could race through it?

But of course it’s not as simple as a question of subject position. If I tried to race through works like that I’d be stumbling over the myriad associations that were then familiar but now make no sense. As far as I’m concerned a kind of translation in the form of notes is required for any work written before the twentieth century. And referring to notes slows down the pace, and therefore the fun.

That’s the difference between me and the academic or intellectual: I’m curious about the lives of people in other times but I need someone who has covered the territory to step forward and guide me, making the strange and unfamiliar emotionally comprehensible. I want to feel the common humanity of the writer and the world they’ve created but it doesn’t come easy.

There are so many references that would have been familiar to the book’s intended readers but now require scholars of archaelogical determination to nut out their meanings. And the tone is often so foreign. I admire the researchers because they can see through the superficial differences to the unchanging human concerns of the writer.

I read Dante’s Inferno a few years ago and it was a mammoth task. Again, very few of the strong, compelling images have stayed with me. The ending has though, and I almost gasped at the beautiful irony: the final circle of hell as a place of stasis so utter that it is frozen rather than burning.

But I got stalled by Thoreau’s Walden. Before starting this book I mistakenly thought it would be a cinch because of the subject matter, so akin to contemporary concerns – a protest against excessive materialism. But it soon began to irritate me. One reason was that there were a few lines that I simply could not make sense of – perhaps theythe language just too idiomatic.

The second reason was that, although I don’t consider myself that materialistic, the anti-materialism of the writer was just too strong for me: I wanted to argue with him about some of the advantages of modern life. That he was intent on proving how few mod cons one needs to live a good life was admirable, but his fundamentalist approach was too much. Still, I do want to finish the book.

I have very subtle ways of sabotaging my reading life. My electricity company gave me a free subscription to Marie Claire a while ago so the magazine magically arrives in the letterbox when the going gets difficult. And even buying the local broadsheet once a week – the Saturday issue is pretty crammed – means that I’ve always got old newspapers to catch up on.

There’s some good tele on at the moment and my willingness to sacrifice favourite shows is at an all-time low – I watch an average of two hours a night, sometimes less, sometimes more. And finally, here are my classic reasons for not reading the classics, given with the twelve-step adage in mind that we’re only as sick as our secrets:

The gas heater steals the oxygen from the room and makes me tired.

My brain’s not what it used to be.

I’ll just forget it all anyway so what’s the point?

I’ve read enough of the classics. From now on I’ll just focus on contemporary writing.

I never learned Greek or Latin. There’s no point reading the translations of works in these languages when the original would be so much better.

I’m lonely and tele keeps me company.

There! I’ve waved the magic blog wand, and hope all these excuses dissolve into nothingness.

Better go now. I have to see what awaits poor Joseph K in The Trial.

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