Tag Archives: Classics

Article of the Day: “I Was a Teenage Illiterate”

I very much enjoyed (and sympathized with) this essay in the New York Times Book Review about having passed over the classics, only to pick them up in one’s mid-twenties.  This, of course, is my current quest.  I’m on a stop-start ride through Oliver Twist, which I love.  Dickens is incredibly dry and sarcastic, which I find enthralling in ways that would have only confused me as a seventeen-year-old.  I’m sure a lot of it would have flown over my head, especially if I had been in the midst of reading to a certain page for a class assignment.  The descriptions are nuanced and gritty; I’m grateful not to be a street vagabond in Victorian London.

The writer of “I was a Teenage Illiterate”, Cathleen Schine, comes by her “illiteracy” not by means of inability to read but rather a close-mindedness in her adolescence.  As she writes of her high school reading days,

I also wrote a paper on existential despair in “Crime and Punishment,” “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” (assigned to the class) and (my one foray into contemporary American literature) “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Look, I didn’t say I wasn’t pretentious; I said I wasn’t well read.

It’s a fortunate thing indeed to pick up great literature when you’re in the mindset to value it for what it is, not for what you have to pick out in order to do well on a quiz or write a paper.  I’ll be back on Oliver once I’ve finished.  Right now, reader, I’m enchanted.

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Classic Book a Month — One Month Behind

Do you keep your New Year’s resolutions?  Clearly I don’t.  I was planning to read Emma in January but work and sleep got the best of me.  New goal: double-down on Emma and Oliver Twist in February, which unfortunately is the shortest month of the year.  I’ll consider it a victory if I can read one and start the other by the time the 28th rolls around.

Classic Book of the Month

I’ve written before about my attempts to make up for a lack of “classic” education in my literature background.  Last year I tackled Catch-22 (ugh) and a pair of Ernest Hemingway titles (A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises), and a couple years ago I read Madame Bovary, The Great Gatsby, East of Eden, and Slaughterhouse-5.  Let 2010 be the year in which I read at least one classic per month.  By classic, I suppose I mean books that are traditionally taught in literature classes or those that are legendarily classic in the sense that people name-check them and they are still in print.  I won’t include those I’ve already read (although I could be persuaded to re-read Persuasion by Jane Austen).  So far I have a couple of books weighing down my shelves that are promising for this venture: Emma by Jane Austen and Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens.

So help me out, now that I’m covered through February.  What else should be on my must-read list for 2010?  I’m thinking about The Grapes of Wrath and perhaps more Hemingway.  I haven’t read any of the big Russian books (Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov), so those are definite possibilities.  And as I go along, of course I welcome comments and guest posts on said classics.  Sometimes it helps to have a friend or two along on what might otherwise be a bit of a slog.

Catch-22, for the last time

I finished it!  I finally plowed my way through the final 60 pages last night, which took on a more somber cast.  **Spoiler Alert**  Yossarian realizes that all of his friends have died in war — his major fear, his reason to go AWOL and avoid flying more missions — and he finally realizes his getaway opportunity.  There is, of course, more circular logic towards the end but maybe the knowledge that I was almost finished helped me put up with it.

Final analysis: Interesting, occasionally aggravating book that could have been about 100 pages shorter.  I’ll give Heller credit for tying all his loose ends up in a neat bow.  And now I don’t have to read it again.

Catch-22 Update

I still haven’t finished the damn book.

An Earnest Attempt at Hemingway

In the vein of catching up on the reading I missed out on in high school, over the past few years I’ve been working on overcoming my aversion to Ernest Hemingway.  In high school, I read several of his short stories (“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” etc.).  My high school English teacher, Mr. Witz, even assigned us to write a Hemingway imitation piece, to be entered in a national contest.  The spare, hard narrative style was okay, but I resisted the dialogue.  I still do, to some extent.  The repetition, the obvious-seeming phrasing, at least in some pieces, struck me as problematic.  I’m not sure I can parse my dislike of it very well.  Maybe it sounded too phony to my reading ears.

But in an attempt to overcome this superficial dislike and limited exposure, I have read three classic Hemingway novels during the past few years.  First up, The Old Man and the Sea, the book that won him a Pulitzer.  I checked it out from the Iowa City Public Library and read it in an afternoon.  Short, brusque, heartbreaking.  The elderly Cuban fisherman at the heart of the story is on a quest for a giant marlin, and his obsession over this last fish takes him far from land and home.  I especially remember the scene of him catching a smaller fish to sustain himself while he tries to reel in the marlin.  He’s out on a small boat, with nothing but his rod and a knife, so he slices up the smaller fish and eats the meat raw, like sashimi.  He knows he has to sustain his life long enough to catch the marlin, and as he is driven further out to sea by the marlin caught on the end of his reel, he tries everything he can think of to stay awake, stay alive, and take the sucker.

It’s such a short, spare, beautiful book.  I’d like to read it again, but I know it’s devastating, heartbreaking, and I am a little afraid to go through it again.

This seems to be my experience with the other two Hemingway novels that I’ve read more recently: The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms.  The stylistic difference between the two is strong.  TSAR was written in the 1920s and was one of Hemingway’s breakthrough books.  It’s far more voluble and is more-or-less plot-free.  The strength of The Old Man and the Sea derives partly from its brevity, so the simple plot is sufficient.  In the longer novels, the writing is the focus, rather than the characters, who aren’t especially compelling, or the plot, which seems to follow around disillusioned young American men in Europe.  Maybe getting farther away from his own experiences helped Hemingway create a stronger piece.  I’m no literary critic, of course — these are just my impressions.

A Farewell to Arms seems more autobiographical, since the book cover describes Hemingway’s experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War, which is the occupation of the protagonist, Frederic Henry.  The most exhilarating part of the books, for me, is when Henry and his pregnant, English girlfriend escape from Italy to Switzerland in a “borrowed” canoe.  Henry rows across a lake all night, evading border authorities and escaping arrest for deserting his post.  The physical agony and the bright goal at daybreak brought me into the boat with Henry and Catherine.

Yet, once Henry and Catherine have created a charming life for themselves, posing as travelers through Switzerland and nesting in a hotel, a sense of foreboding settles in.  Sure enough, as Catherine goes into a prolonged and difficult labor, ending with a Caesarian, you know something’s gone awry.  Just like in an episode of ER, the knowledge that the book is physically coming to a close and the heroine is still fighting for her life lets the reader know that Henry’s happy family is about to disintegrate.  It’s odd, knowing how integral fathers-to-be are in delivery rooms now, because Henry is sent away and goes into the Swiss village for meals and beer, and he reads the newspaper, wiling away the time as his cyanotic son is delivered and Catherine bleeds to death.  He’s far from any friends or family to comfort him, and a bereft man is all that remains at the end of AFTA.  Again, like Old Man, it’s heartbreaking.

So this is my experience of Hemingway.  I feel I owe it to myself to re-read some of the short stories, to see if I can tolerate the dialogue and connect with the terse, lonely characters.  They’re not warm people to spend time with, but they do feel real.

Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I’ve been slogging through Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, for about a month now.  I bought it who-knows-how-many-years ago, feeling a certain obligation to it.  There’s usually a reason why terms, like catch-22, and books enter our cultural lexicon, and I usually want to be a part of that experience.  Particularly now that I have graduated from college and grad school, the burden to teach myself what’s important to read and study is greater than when it was the purview of teachers and professors.

When I was studying in England, I read a lot of things I’d been putting off, maybe because I didn’t study them in high school or college, maybe because they seemed interesting.  Also, I’ve acquired dozens of books over the years that I’ve summarily pushed to the side to read something newer and seemingly more interesting.  This is how I ended up with Catch-22 and how I finally read it.  I’ve caught up on a little Vonnegut, I’ve read The Great Gatsby, and I’ve read too many “easy” books to avoid Heller’s alleged classic any longer.

Here’s the thing:  I almost cannot bear the book.  It’s not quite what I anticipated, which is usually a good thing when it comes to a book or movie.  Short plot synopsis:  Yossarian, the protagnist, is a WWII bombardier based in a relatively tranquil part of Italy sometime in late 1944/early 1945.  He’s achieved the required number of flight missions until a capricious colonel increases the requirement by five more missions.  Yossarian is scared of dying mid-flight, which is not unreasonable, based on some of his fellow aviators’ deaths, and tries to get discharged.  This is where the term catch-22 arises from, as it’s a fictitious military term wherein you can be discharged if you’re crazy, but if you are aware of your craziness, it disproves your insanity.  So Yossarian is stuck flying, while an aggravating cast of characters surrounds him.

The book is a post-modern exercise in extreme irony.  Almost each chapter revolves around a situation in which a character creates a problem based on circular reasoning, and other characters try to maneuver around it.  A new circular dilemma appears in each chapter, but piled on top of each other, the book mostly reads like moderately disguised repetition.

But I don’t like to give up on books.  I will finish almost any book I start, no matter how bad (e.g., Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him).  I’m too invested, time-wise, in Catch-22 to give up now!  The book feels very much like a young writer’s wry, canny debut novel, wherein he tries out as many tricks as possible; maybe Dave Eggers is this generation’s exemplar, except I like Eggers.

I guess my takeaway from Catch-22 is that classics can serve to teach you the voice of an age, to connect you to repulsive characters despite your aversion to their personalities and behaviors, and to get the hell away and read more contemporary books.