26 March 2007

Novel Ideas

Mark Twain remarked that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” I don’t know if that is still the case—but I think Twain has been generally correct about this.

Personally, I have had a terribly schizophrenic relationship with the classics (and novels in general for that matter) for the past 20-25 years. The primary reason, I believe, has been my study of History. You see, after reading traditional nonfiction History: textbooks, journals, short articles, and primary source materials—it becomes difficult to read word-for-word books. When you read academic nonfiction, you can often skim—searching for main ideas and key points, while quickly glancing over the language and style.

I do enjoy nonfiction very much—but I grew up reading classics and lament the fact that I continue to have trouble reading the great works. I can zip through a 500 page biography in a few days—but when I try to pick up one of the classics, I stick with it for awhile, and then…….my thoughts wander to some American history topic.

I could simply give up. I read enough good nonfiction…..I need not be so hard on myself, right?

But I still believe that fiction in general, and these classics specifically, are well worth the effort. I want to take my time and read each and every word, meet interesting characters, and understand their human emotions and dilemmas. The beautiful sentence structures, the perfect word choice, and the unfolding plots. I do get some of that in good history book—but I want more. Besides, the classics are so civilizing.

I grew up reading Dickens—Oliver Twist was the first real, adult novel I remember reading. Then I read David Copperfield and was “hooked on the classics.” But once I went to graduate school, the nonfiction took over.

I was assigned The Sun Also Rises in a graduate school History class once—and I loved that novel. I still read it several times a year. After reading it in Dr. Allen’s U.S. History seminar at Southern Illinois University—several of my classmates and I got drunk for about 4-5 days straight! We each bought one of those wine skins that Jake and the others drink from in the novel . Those were the days!

Well, I am here to say that I haven’t given up yet…..I am trying once again. I have a stack of classics that I keep on hand so when I get the urge, I have something to grab. A few days ago, I spotted the fat little Bantam Classic edition of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (Tolstoy pictured above). Thus far…..wonderful. I don’t want to say too much, I have completed 191 of 868 pages. But I sense that this might be the start of something.

I will keep you posted on my progress! Wish me luck.

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