I spent high school immersed in Victorian novels. My purse contained four typed 9×11 sheets listing classic works that every “college-bound” student should read, and every year I dutifully read and crossed more of them off. I defended these books vociferously for their timeless ideas, eschewing more contemporary writing, most of which, I was sure, had only ephemeral value. Though I was writing fiction of my own even back then – and certainly wanted people to read it – my goal was to write something timeless, and I thought my greatest guide to doing so would come from reading other timeless works.
Well, I was, after all, a teenager.
Now, of course, the idea of classics, or a canon, stands on shaky ground. My love of George Eliot, Thackeray, Dickens, Tolstoy, and Dostoeysky stands strong – together with my love for Chaucer, even Aeschylus for that matter – but the idea that there is a single body of literature that every educated person in a culture should know is hotly contested. So is the idea that any writer can produce a “classic” work that speaks to people from other times and cultures, or that there is value in aiming to do so. You can still find “classics” in a book store, or, more to the point, sold on Amazon, but who is reading them?
One thing for sure is that the next generation is not reading this stuff anymore. They can’t read it say English teachers, not even the best and the brightest of them. When I served on an English Materials of Instruction committee in my local school system, the idea was to find books that kids would read. Any reading was good, the educators contended. The content didn’t matter. The new national Common Core curriculum is pushing non-fiction, practical reading material over literature, even contemporary literature.
I began to think these educators were right as I watched my teenage son slog through A Tale of Two Cities all last summer. This was a book I had read in 8th grade and thought would be fun summer reading for a kid who had just graduated at the the top of his high school class, sailed through advanced English and history courses, and was heading off to an Ivy League college. But the unfamiliar vocabulary, convoluted phrasing, and languid pacing threw him for a loop.
And yet….Eventually my son told me that Charles Dickens was worth the slogging. Once he forced himself to push through the unfamiliar style into the heart of the book, he discovered that almost every sentence was packed with wry humor or subtle insights, and that eventually the unfamiliar vocabulary opened unplumbed perspectives. I remember thinking the same thing when I recently returned to Middlemarch or Crime and Punishment, or read Buddenbrooks for the first time, continually discovering that there is still something incomparable in the experience of reading these much maligned books that have outlived their authors. They are perhaps not as classic as I had once imagined – now that I’ve lived over half a century myself, something written 100 or 150 years ago hardly seems timeless – but they still deserve attention.
It’s not that many new books aren’t wonderful. Or that novelists don’t have to bring today’s voices to the craft. But one of the wonders of reading and writing is the ability to speak to and hear from other generations. Just as I like to think that someday my words will mean something to someone not yet born, so I like to think that I can hear the voices of someone born long ago.