Combating the Classics

Posted: January 12, 2013 in On Articles
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

When I was in the 3rd Grade, I read the first four (then the only four) Harry Potter books. By 5th Grade, I had made my way up to Tom Clancy novels, and by 7th Grade, a Stephen King book was pretty much always within my reach. Books cowered in fear at the sight of me, and I was no stranger to the librarians (in both the school and the city library). But then something happened.. something I can’t quite explain. Something that would alter my relationship with reading for years to come.

I went to High School.

Wait, what? What exactly does that mean?

It means that, in terms of Don Gallo’s article “How Classics Create an Alliterate Society”, I was part of a rare area in the middle. I didn’t absolutely hate the reading that was required of me, I didn’t have trouble connecting with the novels because the characters “weren’t like me” or because the themes were “too adult” for me (Tom Clancy in 5th Grade, people), but I was very, very much so in the category of those disinterested in the reading.. or at least most of it. The Scarlet Letter, Romeo and Juliet, Once Upon a Town… all of these nearly bored me to tears. The Scarlet Letter was melodramatic nonsense in my high school self’s opinion (and while I appreciate it now, it still is). Anything Shakespearian still busts my chops, simply because the language he is writing in is not English. It’s not. Asking us to read Shakespeare UNTRANSLATED in 2013 is like asking someone from Shakespeare’s era to try and read text-speak.

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Despite my lack of interest in these various “classic” titles, I did read them, all the while wondering just who the hell was part of the tribunal that gathers to pick the most painfully dull books to teach as “classic”. There is perhaps nothing more torturous, in my opinion, than having to read something you are plainly not interested in. High school’s method of teaching didn’t help much, just as Gallo mentions, nonsensical quizzes over trivial details in the books ensured not only that I didn’t want to read it, I didn’t care enough to keep track of details like “exactly how much time does the turtle spend on the road in The Grapes of Wrath? Round to the nearest hundredth”. That type of curriculum is choking and fosters only resentment for books. If you really want someone to be interested in a book, talk about it. I don’t mean quiz, I mean sit around and BS about the book; leave no thought unacknowledged and no question unanswered, no matter how trivial.

Gallo mentions the amount of good even 20 to 30 minutes of free reading could do in high schools, and I agree wholeheartedly. In grade / middle school, we had an “A.R.” reading program. We chose a book, read it (with allotted time in class that was usually used for the teacher to grade or wind down), and took a short quiz on it. There wasn’t any required reading, it was whatever we chose. I think the sudden shift from open fields to bleak cells is part of the reason that my relationship with reading has / had been tentative throughout and since high school. Being told what is classic, what is well written, what is good reading and what is not is definitely not my bag.

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As a teenager (which I still am), I plunged headfirst into the dark and the strange that literature had to offer. I went through Stephen King titles like candy, H.G. Wells and I become well acquainted, and I even sampled the occasional thriller by Tom Clancy or Steven Gould. The Goosebumps books from my childhood (and my earlier blog post) and the Lois Duncan novels from grade school had led me to this path, had given me a taste for the macabre and the darker side of what literature had to offer. My path had been determined. If given a choice, red definitely would be the color of my lightsaber.

As I got older and continued deeper down into the literary trenches, two pieces grabbed a significant hold of me and haven’t let go since: The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe, and The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft, both a culmination of years and years of horror films, books, and TV shows. Both deal with the dark recesses of the human mind, both drip with hopelessness and insanity, and both were exactly what I had been searching for. The writing styles, while a bit purpley in the case of Lovecraft, were perfect. The description of dank, dark catacombs beneath a manor or the bizarre geometry of a city lost to the city could not have painted a more vivid image in my mind. I had finally found my literary holy grail. Hopefully, through the duration of our time together, I can share this sinister grail with you.

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Carpe Noctem.

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