Monday, October 31, 2011

Back from the Dead: Classic Literature

Since it's Halloween, I feel like it is only fitting to mention at least a little something about the dearly departed. But since this is a literary blog, I want it to be book themed as well. My compromise: classic literature.

Those of you who have ever taken an English class may have heard the term "canonical literature" or had a teacher who talked about books that are a part of the canon. No, they probably weren't talking about those weapons on pirate ships or battle fields; they were most likely talking about the literary canon. To put it simply, books that we classify as being in this group are ones that have been deemed of significant importance. In layman's terms, they're the books or authors we refer to as the classics.

William Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chalres Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Jane Austen, Nathaniel Hawthorne, etc. off the top of my head generally belong in this group. If you noticed these seem to almost all be the names of dead white males, you'd be right, but luckily for us, society and what we value is in constant flux, so this group is always growing and has actually become fairly diverse.
These classics can often be very challenging to read, though, because they were written so long ago. I got through many titles and authors in high school and college, but I must admit that since graduating, contemporary fiction has been my primary reading material. The language is more familiar. The social customs aren't so foreign to me. I don't have to work as hard to identify with characters. I fear that this has made me a bit of a lazy reader.

Recently, I decided to get back in touch with those classic books I'd fallen in love with as a student all those years ago in my high school English classrooms. But I didn't want to cheat, I wanted my brain to really have to work at it, so I couldn't just reread Pride & Prejudice for the
6th time. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I picked a book I'd heard of nearly my whole life but never took the time to read.

I'll give you a Halloween hint: there's a candy bar with the same name.

Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers was my choice, and so far, I'm really happy with it. Sword fights, action, honor, hot tempers, friendship, taking down the bad guys - no wonder they decided to remake it into a movie (in theaters now). All of that has been going on, and I'm not even 100 pages in yet. As someone who primarily has read contemporary female authors for the last few months, It was a conscious decision to read something written by a man because they just have a different way of looking at things. In a nut shell, so far, so good.

But why do it if it's so much harder? Isn't hard enough for most people to find time at all to read an actual book and not just email or even blogs? Why bother with books that are sometimes hundreds of years old with ancient ideas that can't possibly be relevant to people today?

Because they are relevant. Because the whole nature of reading and books is to help us escape, to challenge us, to grow. They are the classics because they mattered once, so who's to say that they don't still matter or that people today can't relate if we don't actually read them? Pride & Prejudice was written by a woman who never got married back in the 1800s, yet that plot can be seen time and again in chick-flicks in cinemas now. And that's just one example. Many of today's stories or authors owe thanks and pay homage to those who came before.

So after all that, here's my two cents: read a classic. You may be surprised at how much it can tell you about the world today.

As always, happy reading, comments welcome, and if you like what you see here, tell your friends!

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