The Problem with Classics

I love a lot about classics. For the most part, there’s a reason they’ve stuck around.

As wonderful experiences I have had reading classic literature, there are some definite challenges that come along with it.

One of the challenges of reading classics is reconciling “old-fashioned” ways of thinking with modern expectations. This stood out to me as I’ve been reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have been really annoyed with her presentation of gender and class. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I have found the book so far to feel like the worst of upper-class snobbery.

In addition to that, I find the female characters in particular to be really obnoxious and have felt extremely disappointed that a woman was apparently so incapable of writing a competent, complex female character.

I’ve read plenty of books where I noticed problems with gender dynamics before. It’s, unfortunately, hard to avoid – especially when you consider that the history of publishing was so entirely dominated by men for such a long time (and still is, although to a lesser extent). But it is really grating for me in North and South (again – so far; I may change my mind). Does that mean I’m simply not doing a good enough job of getting my head into a 19th century mentality and stop trying to view it through a 21st century lens? Is it my fault for expecting or wanting my values to be reflected? I mean, I really feel like I’m not asking for anything unreasonable here. (Can we have one woman in an 19th century novel that doesn’t faint or burst into hysterics? One woman?)

On the flip side, if I roll my eyes and keep reading, muttering something along the lines of “it’s of its time,” am I letting myself down and minimizing/ignoring the issues I see?

It’s clear that there is some kind of balance that can exist. After all, it is entirely possible to recognize something as deeply problematic while still enjoying and even holding it close to your heart. Perhaps I just haven’t read enough classics to find that balance.

I’ll finish with this: It is disheartening to see yourself (in my case, my gender) in great literature only through stereotypes and paper-cutout-characters. To see yourself only in shadows while everything else is in brilliant color. To see writers time and time again lazily resort to trope after trope after trope. And of course there are many, many other groups who experience this to an even greater degree.

As fantastic as much of classic literature is, I think we have to admit that visibility matters. Being able to see yourself in the stories that you read really matters. It’s why we really do need diverse books.

Classics are worthwhile, by all means. But so is a conversation about where literature has failed.

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The Classics Book Tag

For something slightly different today, let’s do a book tag! It’s simply a series of questions to answer and then you would tag somebody that you also want to answer those questions. Except I haven’t actually been tagged to do this one, and I’m not going to tag anybody, so I guess this is more of the Classics Book _____? Also I’m changing one or two of the questions, so…really it’s nothing like it at all. (If you are interested, I believe the original tag is here.)

Anyway, I’ve seen this tag around for a long time (it’s a really old one) and it’s always looked really fun, so here goes!

  1. An overhyped classic you didn’t like.
    • Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment. (Although to be fair, I think I would actually find a lot to admire and appreciate about Crime and Punishment if I read it now.)
  2. Favorite time period to read about.
    • If this question is supposed to be about setting, than really anything before 1800 (although I still enjoy a lot of things set in the 1800s, too). If I had to choose something more specific, it would probably be the American Revolution.
    • If this question is supposed to be about classic literature written in a particular time period, I would have to say 19th century. So many of The Greats are from that century that it’s kind of hard to pick anything else, although I’m really interested to give more 18th century literature a try.
  3. Favorite fairy tale.
    • I don’t actually really read fairy tales much at all, but in general, it would be Beauty and the Beast.
  4. What classic are you most embarrassed you haven’t read yet.
    • For the longest time, it was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I finally read that last year (or the year before?). Right now I would have to say it’s probably A Tale of Two Cities.
  5. Top five classics you would like to read soon.
    • A Tale of Two Cities, The Odyssey, Three Musketeers, North and South, and something by Virginia Woolf.
  6. Favorite movie or tv series adaptation of a classic.
    • BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Kate Winslet (adore that movie!), and BBC’s recent-ish miniseries of Emma. If we’re counting Lord of the Rings as classics, then definitely those movies, too.
  7. Underhyped classic you’d recommend to everyone.
    • I have not read many classics that I consider underhyped, BUT the one that instantly came to mind is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. This is fairly recent to be considered a classic (I believe it was published in the late 1950s), but I still think it counts. It was soooooo good. I had picked it up from a library book sale on a total whim for two reasons a) it was $.25, and b) there was a quote on the front from Arthur Schlesinger saying that it was the best novel about American urban politics. That immediately sold me. I’m not sure if I would love it quite as much if I read it again now (I may just have happened to read it at the absolute perfect time), but I absolutely adored it. It had me snorting from laughter on the train multiple times (not kidding), and was utterly engrossing.
  8. Favorite editions of classic books.
    • I’m fairly utilitarian when it comes to books. I’m less concerned about how pretty a cover is than how it feels in my hand and how easy it is to read. Some books/editions are far too stiff and make it difficult to read one-handed. They don’t flop open nicely and you have to beat the book up a little bit so that it is bendable enough to read. I don’t like books like that. The ones that feel the best in my hand and are easy to read are the regular Barnes and Noble Classics. Their covers are not great, but they’re really comfortable to read, so I really enjoy those.
  9. Recommendations for starter classics
    • Classic literature can be daunting, so here are some suggestions on where to start.
      • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
      • A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
      • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
      • Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

Do you have a favorite classic? What about a classic that most surprised you?

 

The Right Time

When I was eight, I tried to read my first adult book. I seem to remember it being at least 800 pages long, although Goodreads claims it is just over 400 pages, so…there’s that. It had been given to me by my grandmother and was part of an enormous series called The Work and the Glory (consisting of 9 books, the longest of which actually is nearly 800 pages). I was sitting in the car with it on my lap as we were driving home from my grandmother’s. My mom was filling the car with gas. I was waiting. I hadn’t brought a book with me, and with a shiny new book sitting on my lap, what is a true bibliophile to do?

I started reading it. I didn’t get very far. It remained on my bookshelf, unread.

I came back to it a few years later, successfully reading it and the rest of the series. They were even some of my favorite books for a while.

When I was twelve, I checked out Treasure Island and another children’s classic (I think it was A Secret Garden, but I’m not sure) from the library. I was not ready for them and could not bring myself to read more than a few pages before giving it up as a bad job.

The funny thing is that Treasure Island must technically be at a lower reading level than the adult series I read a younger age, but that didn’t matter. It seemed utterly foreign to me and I felt I had no hope of ever being able to understand it.* I had some sort of idea that the ability to understand and appreciate certain kinds of literature was a kind of innate talent-like a gene that I just simply hadn’t been born with. This, of course, is not true. It was simply not the right time for me to read it-just like it wasn’t the right time for me to read The Work and the Glory when I first tried. I somehow implicitly understood that better at age eight than I did several years later.

I’ve thought a lot about coming to pieces of literature at the right time. Having a favorite when perhaps it’s only a favorite because of something small that spoke to you in that particular moment. The difference it can make to read a book at just the right moment for you.

It’s the same thing in the “real world.” There’s a right and a wrong time for everything. The trick is waiting for the right time to roll around.

And that can be aggravating as all get-out.

More often than I would care to admit, I am guilty of peeking ahead to the end of a book to see what happens, or to see if my guess is correct, spoiling the ending.**

Surely I can’t be the only one who wishes I could sometimes do that with my life? To be able to peek ahead, just a few months, or a year? After all, if there’s a Hagrid waiting to tell me on page 273 of my life that actually Hogwarts made a mistake and I should have received my letter years ago, wouldn’t that be nice to know now?

But then I have to slow down and remind myself:

Right now is the right time for something.

And I need to enjoy that something now before it becomes the right time for something else.

The alternative is waiting for a golden ticket that is never guaranteed to arrive. Or putting off the moment you will finally allow yourself to smile at what’s in front of you, the way you put off that book you know you’ll love.

It takes some degree of trust to allow yourself that moment to smile. Maybe that’s part of why it’s so difficult.

Trust and, I suppose, a little bit of patience.

*For the record, I did come back to Treasure Island…but not until my mid-twenties.

**Also for the record, I do this much less often than I used to.

Reading wrap-up: part 2

If you missed part 1 of my reading wrap-up, click here.

It’s time for more books! We’ll jump right into it.

I remember hearing oodles of rave reviews for We Were Liars by E. Lockhart when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure why I waited so long, but I was in the mood for a really quick 16143347and easy read, so I finally dusted off my copy, settled myself on my bed, and read it in one sitting. No spoilers here, but I have to say I was kind of disappointed and that I have conflicting feelings about it. There were a few things that I thought were problematic and that bothered me enough to interfere with my experience reading the book. Minor adjustments could have been made that I think would have fixed those problems. And I’m not talking about plot holes or anything like that; I’m talking about the way certain characteristics or experiences were romanticized, as well as poor character development. That’s what I found problematic. Despite that, the writing was excellent. This is the second book I’ve read by E. Lockhart and this is how I feel about her: she has incredible potential but it’s like her swings keep missing. (Either that or we just don’t get on very well.) I still want to keep track of her work, though, because I feel like when she lands one, it will be phenomenal.

Next up, I read Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. I saw this book crop up on so many lists at the end of last year, particularly in light of the results of the ahem election ahem and I was extremely curious. After visiting southern Virginia and noticing some…interesting things, it felt like an appropriate time to read it. I listened to the audiobook quite quickly, as it’s a pretty short book. I’m really glad I read it. I struggle to articulate exactly what I learned and how it made me feel, but it is definitely eye-opening, and I think that is its main value. It made me feel like I took a huge step in understanding what life is like for so many Americans whose experience is vastly different from my own – experiences that are so often ignored or silenced in “mainstream” American media. It is without a doubt an important piece of nonfiction. (If you’re interested in giving it a try, please note that its language is most definitely not G-rated.)

61i4k7dwnfl-_sx376_bo1204203200_Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari was another one I’d heard great things about, so I decided to give it a go. It was a fascinating read, although I definitely took issue with a number of things Harari says. He quite clearly views religion the way most of would view, say, monsters under the bed: an eyeroll-worthy fiction. At the same time, he will describe an occurrence or development and admit there is no scientific or biological explanation for it. One primary example of this is what he calls the cognitive revolution, where human brains evolved dramatically and became capable of more complex ideas and speech, and capable of creating shared stories. It was a great read, but I felt Harari was more than a little condescending. Perhaps most problematic of all, he completely fails to take into account this important lesson that millions of children (and adults) learned from Harry Potter: “Of course it is all happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” He completely fails to recognize truth and reality in what we may call “fictions.” He uses money as an example, calling it the most successful and widespread “fiction” we have invented. And he is right to a large extent. Money in and of itself has no value. It holds value only because we say it does and we believe it does, and our neighbors believe it, too. And he’s right. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can take your $10 bill, or your piece of plastic down to a store and come back with food for the day. You can call money “imagined” until you’re blue in the face, but you’ll still need it just as much as your neighbor. I found his condescending bias more than a little grating.

I never had a mythology unit in school. I’ve picked up some information over the years, but always felt my knowledge was quite lacking in this particular area. After reading Phillis Wheatley’s poetry collection, this gap became even more clear and I decided to at least attempt to rectify that. I decided to start with Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Now, this isn’t the kind of book I think most people would want to sit down and read through, but it was still fairly enjoyable. It definitely held my attention more at the beginning and kind of dwindled towards the end. I suppose it’s a fairly good place to start if you’re looking to build up your Greek/Roman mythology base. The main problem with it, however, was its organization, which made little sense. There were stories that were referenced that were not actually shared until later in the book, and some important myths were placed behind less important myths, etc. Overall, though, it was fairly successful. I definitely could not rattle off a bunch of names and stories, but it gave me a better understand of the feel of Greek/Roman mythology and helped me become more familiar with the stories, even if I don’t have them memorized.

Reading wrap-up: part 1

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I have read a lot over the last few weeks, so I thought I would share what I’ve read and what I thought about it. I was planning to put it all in one post, but it got a little wieldy. (Yes, I’ve read that much.) So I’ve split it up in to two parts. (Part 2 will be coming soon!)

First off, I listened to the entire Harry Potter series on audiobook within the course of 10 7b679beca8-301a-4389-be19-3e773907f1597dimg400days. Whoops. Obviously, no review is necessary for Harry Potter, but I did want to mention a couple of things that really stood out to me this time around. 1) I totally underrated Half-Blood Prince in my memory. I typically listed it as my third or fourth favorite of the series, but listening to it this time around, I feel like it deserves to be much higher. 2) It really is a master class in weaving a complex and intricate plot. Totally mind-blowing. And 3) I definitely prefer the later books in the series, but am stunned by how everything connects together. It’s not for nothing that these are among my favorite books of all time. Harry Potter will always and forever be close to my heart, and it will always feel like coming home.

smallNext up is a poetry collection. Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. I’ll be quite candid: Phillis, as much as I admire her, is not my favorite poet, BUT that doesn’t mean that I didn’t get quite a bit out of reading this. It went a long way in helping me understand her, although I still feel like I have a ways to go. One of the things that really stood out to me was how intelligent she clearly was. She referenced mythology and the Bible like nobody’s business, and in a way that shows a deep understanding – not just a cursory awareness of it. And some ideas expressed were truly remarkable and thought-provoking. It was definitely a worthwhile read for me. Even if I wasn’t, you know, writing a novel about her.

Then I finished reading Presence by Amy Cuddy. Remember I mentioned that waaaaay back last year? Yeah, well I finally finished reading the book. I kind of put it to the side when I was distracted by other things, but finally came back to it a couple weeks ago and quickly finished it. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk remains one of the most impactful things I have ever watched or listened to, as it is a subject that hits really close to home for me. I have seen Presence criticized as nothing more than an expansion of her TED talk. I don’t entirely agree with that view of it, but even if it was true, I would still find it valuable. To me, this book offered very real, tangible actions that I can take to increase my confidence and also offered some extremely helpful ways of thinking about confidence. I have no real reservation in recommending this book to anyone who feels they sometimes lack the confidence that they would like to have.

I’d been hearing a lot about Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Revolution and I was pretty curious, so I listened to the audiobook. This was definitely my least favorite recent read. It felt like nothing so much as a regurgitation and compilation of sleep research, with no real additional value. It didn’t add much of anything. I didn’t even feel like I learned that much, even though I’ve only read a handful of articles of sleep. When you read a full-length book, I think you would generally expect to learn more than you had a from a few articles, so…yeah. I wanted to enjoy it, but I was not impressed.

I wrote about Lionheart at the beginning of the year, which I absolutely adored, so it was only a matter of time before I picked up its companion novel, A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman, from the library. It took me much longer to work my way through this book than I expected, but that was due to external factors, not the book itself. I do prefer Lionheart, but I still really enjoyed A King’s Ransom. It follows Richard once he leaves the Holy Land, making his way back to England to take care of some problems (which in this case take the form of his brother and the French King) before returning to the Holy Land again to finish his business there. However, things don’t go according to plan. I knew nothing about the historical events that Penman depicts in this novel, so it was quite a gripping read. One of the things I mentioned in my Lionheart post was how wonderful her characters were, and that was the case here, as well. Perhaps not quite as much, but far superior still to what I see in a lot of other historical fiction. Overall, it was a wonderful read. (Although, again as with Lionheart, not one that I would generally recommend to most except hard core historical fiction fans.)

 

What have you read recently?

Lionheart

Hello again.

I don’t know about you, but it still feels weird to say that it’s 2017. Maybe a few more weeks and it will feel normal?

After my little unplanned hiatus over the last few weeks (sorry – I was enjoying time with my family and then got sick as soon as I got back to DC), I wanted to jump straight back in to one of the things I love best: talking about books.

Specifically, talking about books that I love,

Specifically, in this case, talking about a book I fell utterly in love with that I finished reading just before the end of the year: Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman.

Lionheart is, as you may guess, a historical novel about Richard the Lionheart, the Crusader King, and I absolutely adored it.

Historical fiction has always been very close to my heart, but I have often struggled to find books in this genre that were well done. So many relied on stereotypical characters or extremely stilted dialogue and any number of other problems. (At least this is the case with books set in the historical periods I am most interested in.) But I was in love with Lionheart from page one.

Disclaimer: Although I am going to rave about this book here, it is not one that I would necessarily recommend for most people. I think I would mostly only recommend it for really hard core historical fiction fans. You have been warned.

I can’t entirely articulate why I loved this book, as it certainly had its weaknesses and problems, but there was just something about it that simply tickled me to my core. Every time I would pick it up, I felt giddy and would start grinning and would remain grinning pretty much until I set it down again. I can maintain a relatively tranquil and passive appearance while reading most books. Not so with this one. I would snort, laugh, or scowl as the situation demanded. I don’t entirely remember but I think I actually squealed in delight while I was reading it on the plane. (So yeah…sorry not sorry?)

Let’s talk about characters. Richard was great and everything, but I really loved the women in the story. That was one of the things I loved the very most about this book: the women in Richard’s life were really given a starring role (and in a very satisfactory way). First there was his mother (the Eleanor of Aquitaine). She’s not around for much of the book, but we get to see her in the first little bit, and she is a total powerhouse. I understand that she plays a very significant role in the companion novel, A King’s Ransom, which I will be beginning shortly, so I’m super excited about that. (I checked it out from the library just the other day.) We also spend a lot of time with Richard’s wife, Berengaria/Berenguela who is sweet, loyal, brave, and smart. It’s really fun to watch her grow throughout the novel. And even though she is someone who would normally be a fairly passive character in the way most people would tell the story, Sharon Kay Penman really creates a character you can respect and someone who you know has enormous potential. I expect to see great things from her in A King’s Ransom.

And then there is Richard’s sister, Joanne, who is incredible. She is ridiculously intelligent, sharp, beautiful, practical. She has nerves of steel and she’s incredibly human. That’s what gets me about all these characters. They do not rely on stereotypes. They all have complexities that make them come to life, and each pulls the reader in expertly until you suddenly realize you care a great deal about them. With all three of these women, I kind of felt like saying, “Can I grow up to be you, please? Maybe just a little bit?”

Just writing about all of this puts a smile on my face and I am itching to pick up A King’s Ransom.

I am glad that I was able to finish my year with such a wonderful book. I had a really sub-par reading year with a number of disappointments and “meh”s, but Lionheart reminded me what it is like to discover a book you adore.

Did you discover a book you adore in 2016? Let me know your favorite read of last year.

 

PS – Did you know you can follow my blog? You can enter your email address below to start receiving an alert when I publish a new post.

One Undervalued Way to Make the World a Better Place

There have been many, many times over the course of my life that heartbreaking stories have dominated news media (for varying lengths of time, whether it is minutes, hours, or days). At those times, I always look at everyone around me, and I read what people post on social media, or listen to what they are talking about over dinner. And every time I’m always surprised when anything but that news story comes up. I inevitably find myself asking the same question:

“Why doesn’t anybody care?”

When people are facing possible genocide in Aleppo, who cares about what movie ruled the box office last weekend? When there are bombings and shootings and other attacks and when horror and terror seem to rule, what does anything else matter?

I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. I do the same thing. I’m pretty sure the same day I wrote about Aleppo here last week, I called my mom to complain about the annoying commute home that day. And there have been plenty of serious news stories that I have ignored altogether.

I know I can’t fix the world, as much as I wish I could. And I know wrapping myself up in the tragedies that surround us doesn’t help anyone either – in part because the best way to beat horror and terror is to simply live. Live our lives in the best way we know how.

Although I’ve felt overwhelmed this week* and sick at the astonishing cruelty that human beings inflict on one another, I have to keep telling myself that there is also astonishing beauty and kindness. I believe that.

I also believe that we can use the astonishing beauty and kindness that humans are capable of to make the world better. And that leads us to the second part of this post.

I started coming up with a whole list of things that we can all do to make the world a better place but it started to feeling like preaching and nobody likes that. So yeah. Just be a good human? But I did want to share the one thing that I think that is undervalued as a way to improve the world.

 

How you can make the world a better place in 2017

Read.

Oy, what did you expect? Because I’m, you know, me. In all honesty though, I truly believe that if more people read regularly, the world would be a better place. One of the many reasons is because stories are lessons in empathy. And reading gives us practice being inside someone else’s head. If there is one thing 2016 taught me, it is that we often have a
lack of empathy. And guess what? Reading can help fix that. Not only that, but reading makes us smarter. Boom. Two birds. One stone. Reading can also help us get a better night’s sleep. And when we are not a Grumpy McGrump Face, that’s a better world for our roommates, friends, family, and coworkers. Three birds. AND reading can stave off Alzheimer’s, which means stack-of-books-1001655_1920you will have more time and more resources to devote to improving the world.  Four birds. And I’m just getting started.

Seriously, Google the benefits of reading and then I dare you to argue that it wouldn’t make the world a better place.

http://lmgtfy.com/?q=benefits+of+reading

Oh look, I just Googled it for you.

Read. Read nonfiction. Read fiction. Read the news. Read to your kids (if you have kids). Read.

It’s an easy and tangible way you can make the world a better place.

 

*In a remarkable episode of the-universe-has-an-incredibly-twisted-sense-of-humor, I turned to a book to escape this malaise. The book was about Richard Lionheart, so you know the Crusades are just what the doctor ordered to restore your faith in humanity. Not. The two pages I read mentioned in passing an atrocious massacre, in which scores of men, women, and children were murdered. I couldn’t keep reading. It is a very good book but I had to put it down for the day.