(Editor’s note: Based on a true story like all good columns are, this one got some gripe from people who thought I was attacking the books. They felt I was trivializing these books and dismissing their merits, judging them without having a basis for it. It also had the unfortunate luck, as several of my articles have, of being undercut by a poor headline that added to the interpretation.
That is not at all the idea I was trying to get across. What I wanted to say was that too often, people read classic works of literature because they either think they’re supposed to [part of a literary tradition] or because they’re told to, and I think that doing that sucks a lot out of the book. It turns it into an obligation rather than an exploration, and you tend to dismiss most of what they say.
I cite “The Great Gatsby” as an example.I didn’t read “Gatsby” until I was a freshman in college – having been too distracted to take AP English or American Lit courses in high school, I opted for more composition courses. Most of the people who read the book I talked to tended to speak negatively of it, as though it was dull and long-winded. I read the entire thing in one sit after getting it for Christmas, and was left basically trembling afterwards. In my mind, not having to read it for class made it a much more enjoyable experience, deciding to look at it from only the perspective I’ve determined.
I would prefer to revisit this topic in a different format, but for consistency’s sake I’ll reprint it in its entirety. By the way, since this writing I have read both “1984” and the first Harry Potter book.)
Pretention makes these novels “classic”
Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, September 28, 2005
I come from suburbia, which means that every time I go home for the summer there is absolutely nothing to do beyond hanging out with my circle of high school friends and drink. Our conversation topics usually depend on whatever’s lying around my living room or basement – for some reason, everyone always winds up at my house even when I don’t know they’re in town.
On my last visit home, one of these topics wound up being George Orwell’s “1984”, which my brother had just completed reading thanks to his girlfriend. Someone – I forget who, as a bottle of Captain Morgan was being passed from armchair to sofa and back again – heard it had just entered the house and brought it into a lull of conversation.
“Oh yeah, 1984. Great book. What’d you think of it Les?”
“Uh, yeah – I’ve actually never read it.”
The room became so quiet you’d think someone had thrown the bottle against the wall. My friend Chad was the first to speak. “How could have not read 1984? That’s the sort of book you have to read just to be a pretentious asshole and say you’ve read it.”
Yes, it is true. I, a literature columnist and pretentious asshole, have never “1984” or even skimmed any of it beyond the opening where the clock strikes 13. My wall of shame doesn’t end there, either – I’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye”, “Moby Dick”, “Red Badge of Courage”, anything by Ayn Rand or any of the Harry Potter series. (I’m guessing I don’t need to ask which one will offend my reader base the most.)
It’s not that I’m prejudiced against mainstream classics – well, except Ayn Rand but that’s more a belief no one should be allowed to talk for that many pages. On the contrary, when I decided to read “The Great Gatsby” freshman year I had to resist the urge to call everyone “old sport” for days, and after finishing “On The Road” this summer I kept walking around campus until I realized walking on the road puts you in the lake.
So why have I never gotten around to attacking this stack of epics? There’s a wide variety of reasons – laziness and cheapness come to mind as the largest reasons, but I think the main reason is rebellious nature toward being told what to read. As years of high school English, scholarship essay contests no one ever wins and Calvin and Hobbes should have taught you, it only counts as fun if somebody makes you do it.
When I introduce a classic book into my life, it tends to be personal whims that drive its addition to the library. There’s a surplus of Fitzgerald at the used bookstore? Time to pull out my wallet. A friend accidentally leaves a copy of “On The Road” at my house? I know how my weekend will be spent. My brother’s bought the complete “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series? Guess he won’t be seeing it for a couple weeks.
Recommendations and loans from friends can help you make the decision, but social pressure is the one thing books should never be a part of. Classic books were birthed through a mix of bullshit, boredom, alcoholism and a small dose of brilliance, and trying to force them into your life can spoil your enjoyment of that combination for good.
I’m sure that before too long something will bring Orwell into my life, be it a battered copy at Paul’s Books or my brother’s girlfriend not picking up her copy from our house during the next Christmas vacation. Until then, I’ll have to rely on my personality to secure the pretentious asshole title.