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Literary Expectations, Or, Judging A Book By Its Cover Story

08/25/2014 08:09 am ET | Updated Oct 25, 2014

My high school age sons, in the process of applying to college, are at that stage where they are regularly encountering classic literature. I remember those days well, approaching the classics with dread, fearing irrelevant, dull stories written in archaic styles. Even today, I still on occasion catch myself ducking the good stuff, as I allow myself to fall back on Mark Twain:

After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn't care no more about him, because I don't take no stock in dead people.

Leaning on a Huck Finn quote; I wonder how many layers of irony surround that exercise of literary laziness?

One of my boys recently read Self Reliance by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he said that before he read it, he expected Emerson would be lecturing the reader in a patronizing and conceited manner. Afterwards, he said he found it inspiring, full of life and vigor, and that he knew Emerson believed what he was saying and wanted to inspire the reader.

There it is. You tiptoe up to a classic holding your nose, only to find out there's a reason it has lasted, that it speaks to our humanity, that it has captivated readers for years, sometimes centuries.

"You tiptoe up to a classic holding your nose, only to find out there's a reason it has lasted, that it speaks to our humanity, that it has captivated readers for years, sometimes centuries."

One of my own early encounters with literary expectations concerned E.V. Rieu's translation of The Odyssey. I chose that Penguin paperback probably because of the cover -- a startling image from an ancient urn, orange figures against a black background, Odysseus tied to the mast listening to the siren's song, the siren upside down in the ship's rigging, with a female head and bird's body -- but also because I had heard it was an adventure story that had inspired so much of western literature. I carried it around with me in the seventh grade, and gradually choked my way through it. My teachers mistook my curiosity for intelligence, as I was choosing to read above my pay grade. In truth, despite being fascinated by Odysseus's adventures, I was too young for it.

That year, my Grandmother took me on a cruise through the Greek Islands, where I visited the world of The Odyssey. The cruise took us to Troy, and because Odysseus had fought there, I was excited to see it. The excavation was different from what I had imagined. There were multiple levels of the Troy dig, and only one surprisingly small area was deemed to be from the time of Homer's tale. Nevertheless, my interest in Homer was reignited.

Years later, I encountered Guy Davenport's Geography of the Imagination. He wrote a piece about the many translations of The Iliad, blessing in particular Robert Fitzgerald and Christopher Logue. At the time, I was working in a go-nowhere job in game shows, hand-writing cue cards for Wink Martindale, Bill Cullen, and Jack Barry. At lunch I would carry my Fitzgerald Iliad and my sandwich to a bench in Century City to be transported. The Iliad, which I had expected to be a dusty war-in-sandals story, proved to be deeply emotional and complex, about a warrior whose wounded pride made him turn his back on his own Fate, only to be brought violently back to it after his beloved friend dies pretending to be him. This was great stuff, astonishing and vivid, and to this day it remains one of my favorite books.

"In high school, I was astonished to find Great Expectations completely enjoyable, and have loved Dickens ever since."

A lifetime of pre-misjudging "classics" dogs every one of us. In high school, I was astonished to find Great Expectations completely enjoyable, and have loved Dickens ever since. I was asked to read the part of Othello in an English class, and I took it on with stentorious, jealous verve -- the girl reading Desdemona cringed and tried to make herself small, while teachers and students came down the hall to see who was admonishing a "strumpet."

When I set out to read Wolf Hall, I anticipated a revisionist Man for All Seasons, only to find an intimate depiction of political genius operating inside the corridors of absolute power 500 years ago in Tudor England. "The Wire", which I thought would be just another gritty cop show, this time in Baltimore, turned out to be the defining story of who we are as capitalist Americans. Even a comedy as seemingly slight as "Tootsie" surprised me by its depth; a selfish actor discovers he is a better man when he dresses as a woman than he had ever been as a man. My own novel, Sundance, has been seen by many to be a Western, and women who were great supporters of my first novel were avoiding it. I have since received astonished emails after they forced themselves to read it and were delighted to find it was literary historical fiction with a romance at its core.

Which brings me back to my sons. I asked my other son what he had imagined he would be getting before he read Henry David Thoreau's Walden. He said that he thought it would be about hippies that wanted to get away from other people. After he read it, he said he realized it was about people who desired to find their true selves.

But discovery doesn't end with just reading the classics, as I found out when visiting Troy. In a friendly coincidence, we stopped in Concord, Massachusetts, this summer, a welcome side excursion while on a college tour. Our friend Geoff Taylor, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide and a member of the Concord Historical Commission, showed us around. After he showed us Louisa May Alcott's home, where she wrote Little Women, he took us to Emerson's home, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's home. He then showed us the replica of Thoreau's cabin, as all that remains of the original is the hearthstone. The replica is exact, ten feet by fifteen feet, so small that it amazed my sons. They had envisioned something larger when reading Thoreau, not a cabin that was no bigger than their bedrooms.

Geoff also took us to Walden Pond. You may have a different image than I do when you hear the word "pond"; this pond is what I would not hesitate to call a lake. Geoff told us it is a kettle hole, scooped out by retreating glaciers some ten thousand years ago. The pond covers 61 acres, is a mile and two thirds around, and is very deep. In fact, today Walden Pond serves as a full-time recreational area, quite different from the quiet, meditative 'pond' my sons and I had expected.

There are worlds out there that inspired the literary classics, worlds we can enter through our knowledge of the classics to help enrich our lives. It can happen deliberately through our travels, or even in our daily existence, when a moment of reflection brings back a thought or an image from a work of art. I am pleased to see my sons discovering these layers of learning, as their lives grow richer through experiencing great literature. They have taken that first step, moving beyond their father and his Huck Finn quote, to finding their own insights from the virtuosos who have come before.

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