When I signed the contract for Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float, my literary-social-networking "lark" of a book that came out this week, I didn't just promise to write it. I was also signing up for two strange and wonderful tasks: to spend an insane amount of time on Facebook, and to immerse myself in dozens of pieces of classic literature. The former, of course, is something I'd probably do anyway. But to also be forced to read the classics? So many books that the people behind me in line at the used bookstore groaned in unison when the cashier pulled out two cardboard boxes for me to carry them? It was crazy-making and challenging, the biggest English Lit assignment I'd ever received. And it's something I'd absolutely recommend.
Not just to teenagers, who have that giant table of "required reading" especially for them in the bookstores right now, mocking them like some big "SUMMER IS OVER" beacon. I mean you, over there, with the copies of Moby-Dick and Brave New World on display on your shelves, probably to impress people, even if you've never cracked the covers. You, who read Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, Twain and Dickens back in school only when you had to and always meant to give them another chance. Now is the time to go back to the classics. Or as good as a time as any.
Yes, I had the bonus of looking at all of these books and trying to find what could be funny about them, especially if they were in a social media world. (What would Ralph from Lord of the Flies do if Jack tried to "friend" him after all these years? How would Hemingway react if he did worse than Conrad or Dostoyevsky on the "Are you a Real Man" quiz?). But I can't even count how many times I went to a book for a reference and ended up getting sucked into a story.
Imagine: Reading The Scarlet Letter, and not only actually understanding what "adultery" is (something I'm pretty sure I thought was a form of shoplifting when it was assigned), but also kind of admiring Hester and her flagrant embroidery in the face of Puritanism. Or getting into The Great Gatsby and not having to plan for essays on what that green light or the fading billboard represent, but to just appreciate the language and its amazing description of an American moment.
Or, how about a translation of The Canterbury Tales--which is actually quite raunchy, any Apatow lover would revel in the fart jokes--without having to memorize the Whan that Aprille? Or any Shakespeare play. The Brontës: yes, Heathcliff and Rochester still hold up. Read Edgar Allan Poe as an adult: oh is he creepier than ever, but also the forerunner to every Twilight Zone episode and so many mysteries. And what about the kids? Try seeing Holden Caulfield or Huckleberry Finn from an adult perspective and not as guys your age. (Though read To Kill a Mockingbird and you will still, to this day, want Atticus to be your dad.) Jane Austen has had her own out-of-school cult following for years, why shouldn't some of these others?
Of course, what the "classics" or "required reading" should be is an entirely different discussion. In my book, I just tried to stick to the things I was assigned in school, the books that show up on every "Greatest Works of All Time" list, and the works that just seemed meant to be translated into Facebook-eze (Dracula, with those letters back and forth, those "links" to newspaper clippings and journal entries, and well, all the vampires? Come on.) Though I like how "Shakespeare" described what a "classic" is in my book's introduction: "I believe it means as an author you must have suffered, toiled in obscurity, drank, battered yourself with heavy household items, contracted something on the English moors, done something embarrassing in public, had daddy issues, run off with a friend's wife or your own underage cousin, failed at writing Hollywood screenplays, or gone to your grave believing you were talentless and completely unloved."
Whatever they are, the classics deserve a second (or first) look, well beyond school and free of any kind of assignment. And even though summer is, yes, okay, over. Moby-Dick was never meant to be a beach read, anyway.
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