Timing is everything with classics
November 14, 2013
During a lecture kicking off the Vail Library's bicentennial celebration of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," the professor worried aloud that younger people were turning away from the classics.
A gray-haired, slightly grumpy guy had to raise his hand at that.
It should be a crime to read a classic before the age of 50, he couldn't keep himself from asserting. Even college students miss almost everything, and these books are ruined for the reading at too tender an age.
She got it, still disagreed, as who but a precious few would pick up these tomes on their own, ever? Better to turn "Pride and Prejudice" into a graphic novel, a comic book, to make it more accessible early in life.
Maybe. And there has to be some lingering resonance to the 1813 novel to spin off a critically acclaimed "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" in 2009.
The curmudgeon who couldn't just listen joined the lecture this past week with maybe 20 others who crossed a spectrum of young and older, men and women, though the group tilted toward older and female. For a literary event on a weeknight, that kind of qualifies as a crowd.
The masses are more or less literate today, of course, but the classics have never enjoyed particularly large audiences. Ursula Le Guinn, in a 2008 essay in Harper's called "Staying Awake: Notes on the alleged decline of reading," noted that few people in history have ever read books and anyway, that's not what matters.
We're egalitarian in our country, which not only leads to wringing our hands needlessly over our place in the world when it comes to education, but also to stuffing our children with high-brow literature while it tastes like liver to them.
You can't really appreciate fine wine until you've had some experience with it, and at the right time.
I still can barely tolerate symphonic masterpieces for being tugged by the ear in itchy nice clothes on too many weekend afternoons when the outdoors and pure play cried out for my child's soul.
Mom, a teacher, had the right intent. But I was ruined forever and only rebelled when my own tastes in music kicked in. And dear God, what a trial for her then.
Thankfully, she hewed closer to her theories about teaching kids art — in a nutshell, let them color outside the lines and better, without lines — when it came to reading.
Of course, I read what I had to read for school, but I read so much else to balance out the boring junk. What child prefers wine to Kool-Aid?
My mother and father didn't read "Pride and Prejudice" to me at bedtime. I got to choose "Barbar" or "Horton Hears a Who," and maybe "Treasure Island" when my courage was up.
I naturally followed James Michener's advice to read everything, the crap as well as the classics, toothpaste instructions if that's all you have. Just read. Then write, if you must.
And so, finally, of age now, about a year ago I began Harvard University's anthology of the top 200 works of fiction. It's really an anthology of European fiction between the earlier 1600s and later 1800s, which I just finished this past weekend. Whew.
I had read some of the authors, and books, before. But running through Dickens, Poe, Hugo, Goeth, Tolstoy et al one after the other was, well, sublime, I have to say.
The combination of historical context and seeing what and hasn't' changed in Western culture and the human condition was well worth the concentrated effort to read them in sequence. I'm a little wiser and smarter for it, I think.
I learned at the lecture that Austen wrote "Pride and Prejudice" and several other of her masterpieces between the ages of 15 and 23.
All I can say is thank God I didn't have to read the novel then. I'm equally thankful to have read it when, far from a prodigy, at last I was ready.
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