Thursday, August 25, 2011

Canon, Classics, and the Love/Hate We Bear Them

There's a fantastic string of comments going on over at Nathan Bransford's blog about classics and canon, and which books should be removed from the invisible list - if any.

Certain books seem to be getting more hate (and I use that term loosely) than others. Moby Dick and The Scarlett Letter seem to be racking up the most points. there's a part of me that actually wants to scroll through that list and tally up the number of people remarking on various books and plays. Some have included the entire work of an author; "anything by James Joyce" or "everything by Hemmingway."

Naturally, there are plenty of people who love what other people hate. Some have mentioned Orwell, and while I've only ever read 1984, I enjoyed it, so there's a chance I'd enjoy a few of his other works. As I continued to read, I started to think about which books were squeaking out of the discussion to remain safe. Like The Great Gatsby. Yet sure enough, eventually someone mentioned how it needed to go.

Then I saw a comment by David Elzey, "[...]perhaps one of the problems with the canon is that we get these books before we're ready for them?" I think he's got an excellent point.

Many of the posters, myself included, wrote about the books we disliked in past tense. Past tense as in "read it in high school." There may be some college references, and perhaps even a few people who finished a classic last month, but I think most of us never would have touched a lot of these books had it not been for high school. The issue is that when you're in high school, you're just not all that interested in what a bunch of dead people wrote. Unless you loved books (like myself) or were one of those good students who were willing to make an effort, you were too busy doing other, more interesting high school things. Jane Eyre isn't interesting until the crazy wife appears in the story. Great Expectations will make you want to hang yourself until Ms. Havisham sets herself on fire. Things like that. I'd like to take a poll and see how many of those posters were in high school when they read the books they claim to have hated.

My book? Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I didn't understand what Ellison was aiming for, and I mildly resented being forced to read it because I was pretty sure my teacher was trying to make some sort of racial statement that I also didn't understand. If anything, I figured if she wanted to do that, why couldn't she pick a book that at least made more sense? But again, as I think back now, I wonder - did I not understand Invisible Man because I was in high school? Would it make more sense now? I don't think I'll ever answer these questions because, to be blunt, I'm not going to attempt reading that book again.

But back to Mr. Elzey's statement. How many of us read more classics now than in school? Or at the very least, are more interested, whether or not we actually act out on our thoughts? I know I am. I read a slew of classics in high school, but not because I wanted to. I read more in college, but even though they were assigned, I was an English major and was already more interested. I read SF classics in graduate school, but I got to choose the books (and that's where Frankenstein and 1984 came into the picture), and I enjoyed them a lot more becuase I was the one making the choices. These were the books I at least wanted to read, even if perhaps I might not enjoy them as I read.

With school over completely, I have an extremely varied reading list, and it includes classics. In fact, when B&N had their Buy 2, Get 1 sale on their classics, I went buck wild. I never used to own any classics or books that fall into the wild canon spectrum. Now I have 18. That includes giant collections of H.G. Wells, William Shakespeare, and Edgar Allen Poe. I still have a few titles in my long list of books to read, and still others that I'm curious about.

People don't like to be forced to do anything, plain and simple. While I'm not for throwing out the classics list, the books considered canon, or no longer making high school students read, I think a lot of these books just aren't meant for that age group, which may play a large part in why people end up hating them. After all, I don't think Melville wrote Moby Dick for a 16-year-old high school student. Most high schoolers are nowhere near the target audience for these books, and other things are not universal like so many others believe (Shakespeare is one of them).

But it is nice to see certain other books are getting onto the required reading list. They're not always going to become favorites with everyone, but hey, that's the world of books for ya!