For almost three years now, I have sporadically been reading classic works (or at least really old works) of literature and reporting on them here at LitKicks for the Jamelah Reads the Classics series. So far, I’ve read and reported on several books. (At present, I’m still quasi-working on James Joyce’s Ulysses. Maybe I’ll be done with that by June.)
It’s been an interesting experience, and I’ve encountered books that I’ve enjoyed, and books that have made me want to claw out my eyes, as one would when undertaking such a project. My reason for embarking on the Jamelah Reads the Classics series was a simple one — there are a lot of books in the world, and maybe I should make a concerted effort to read some of the ones I haven’t gotten to yet. Easy as that. So that’s what I’ve been doing, simply as a reader, not as a scholar or a snob or anything. Just to read.
Back in my student days, I spent literature course after literature course analyzing novels and stories and poems for statements about race, class and gender, and I remember telling a friend that reading had become so much work, because, I said “I can’t just read a book. I always have to be on the lookout for what it all MEANS.” He replied that maybe I was still enjoying literature, just in a different way, but I remained dubious. And it only got worse when I got serious about writing, because then, not only was I constantly analyzing every line of everything for some hidden meaning, I was also paying close attention to the way everything was written and thinking about why these writers chose to write the things they did. It got exhausting, and I didn’t want to read anymore.
But once a reader, always a reader, and over time, I figured out that hey, nobody’s making me write papers about this stuff, so I can kind of, you know, just read it. Which is what I do. And when it comes to reading the classics, I’ve found that they’re infinitely more enjoyable when I read them like they’re regular books, which, it turns out, they are. This may not seem like news, at least not on the surface, yet over the years I’ve been writing my series on the classics I read, I’ve discovered that to some, classic works of literature aren’t just books, they are The Hallowed Classics and should be revered as such.
And this is where I get to the point, because when it comes to that opinion, I call bullshit.
At what point does a book lose its status as a book and become some sort of incontrovertible entity of greatness? After it’s survived for years and had people fawn over its brilliance for a generation or more? Ridiculous. Certainly, some books are indeed wonderful or powerful or great (or some or all of the above) but that does not raise them above opinion, and I don’t care if they’ve been around for 500 years or 5 minutes. Books are books. That’s all. Just books.
I wrote last week about how it’s a shame that some of the books that are good for us are sometimes so awfully dull, and it’s little fun to live on a literary diet of so-called healthy reading alone. It’s a position I stand by, though I didn’t get into the other point I wanted to make, which is that I don’t think we do classic literature any favors by not giving anybody any reason to read it other than it’s supposedly so great. Of course, opinions differ on what’s great and what’s not as great (as some of the comments on that post will attest), but “great” is not really all that descriptive. Why should I (or anyone) want to read something by someone who’s been dead for at least 100 years? Because it’s great? Why? Because. So shut up and eat your vegetables? Please.
So much so-called great literature does little more than sit on library shelves, and sure, people may think it’s great because that’s what they’ve been told to believe, but how often do people pick up (and finish reading), say, Don Quixote? Maybe if we’d stop treating classic literature like it’s some sort of rarefied untouchable thing and start treating it like it is what it really is — stuff meant to be consumed for entertainment — then more people might be interested in interacting with it. There’s enough stuff in the world competing for my attention, and I’m not going to read a book if I can’t enjoy it. If I can’t poke a stick at Dante or think Margery Kempe was completely fucking insane. And you know what? I really did think Anna Karenina was long and boring and I couldn’t be bothered to finish it. And so what? It’s just a book. They’re all just books. Not liking them, not reading them, not revering them like they’re sacred… well, it’s not that big of a deal. It’s not on par with pushing strangers out into traffic or drowning puppies. For instance.
Every form of entertainment has its devoted superfans, and literature is no different, but nobody likes to talk about stuff with pretentious snobs (except maybe other pretentious snobs). I used to be a book snob, but I got over it, because for one thing, I think that’s something you’re supposed to do once you’re over the age of 25, and for another thing, when it comes down to it, reading is really nothing more than just another form of entertainment, and it doesn’t do any good to pretend like it’s something else.