There's a guy in my neighborhood named Harry.
Harry, on nice days, sets up a table on the sidewalk by the CVS and sells paperback books for $1.25.
I tend to read on the subway to and from work, and so whenever I find myself bookless, I stop by Harry's table and pick up a good mystery or a good courtroom drama. Harry will usually suggest one to me, based, I can only imagine, on the fact that it's the first one he sees. "If you want to read a good author, try her." "Want a good true crime story?" "Oh, this guy's good. I just got this in."
To be fair, Harry has only steered me wrong once in the seven-year tenure of our business relationship. The one about the angels helping some guy to marry his cousin in Ireland was a bit preachy.
Anyway, because of Harry, I have discovered some very good writers. Harlan Coben, Steve Martini, Richard North Patterson, both Kellermans, etc. Currently I'm in the middle of The Bourne Identity, and while the movie deviated quite a bit, I'm really enjoying it.
But I recently realized that maybe I'm missing something.
As my parents will undoubtedly tell you if you call their house and ask, I have always been an avid reader. If you call and ask over and over, they're likely to tell you other things, as well. What they don't know is how I used to rebel when assigned to read something.
Heck, maybe they do know that; they're pretty perceptive. Sometimes.
Regardless, throughout school, I used to absolutely hate to read anything I was told to, regardless of how good it was, or how much of a classic it was. I would pay attention in class as we discussed said book, sure; I once got an A on a test about The Plague though I'd only read up to page 19. I'm not proud of that, now, but it illustrates my point. (Okay, I'm a little proud of that.)
Of course I'd read some of the books. Among the ones I did finish all of: To Kill a Mockingbird, Rebecca, The Odyssey (translated), Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Canterbury Tales (selected tales; Prologue in Middle English).
You doubt me?
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,...etc.
I suppose that's proof of nothing. Better idea: call my parents and ask.
Books I was assigned to read, but didn't: The aforementioned The Plague, The Sun Also Rises, Peter the Great, Wuthering Heights, The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad (translated), to name a few.
Again, I'm not proud of this. In fact, I'm feeling a little sheepish when I think about many of the things I was actually reading in lieu of the things I was supposed to be reading. Piers Anthony's Incarnations of Immortality series is quite good, but I imagine it's not on a par with Animal Farm.
The reason I bring this all up is that CSPAN-3 last week showed a number of symposia and interviews regarding Ernest Hemingway. As I listened to all of the people describe him as the best American writer of the 20th century, I began to feel as though I might have been missing out by choosing to re-read one of my Bloom County collections instead.
(An aside: if you get CSPAN-3, I highly suggest you check it out. Great programs, a nice combination of really interesting and really easy-to-fall-asleep-to-at-night.)
I imagine there are a number of you in the same boat. I can't imagine I'm the only one out there who had low expectations for Great Expectations and just decided not to bother.
But that's going to change. This summer, I'm going to get a high school reading list and start crossing things off. I mean, there's gotta be a reason these books are classics, right? Moby Dick isn't taught year after year simply because it has good symbolism, right? The Sea of Grass has to be more than just a series of adjectives describing the front porch of a house, right?
Actually, in that last case, wrong. I can think of only one book I've read my entire life in which less happens, and that was John McPhee's Oranges, which is about 150 pages on -- get this -- oranges.
I'm going to assume that's an anomaly, though, and, to be fair to my 9th grade English teacher, Mr. Shaten, The Sea of Grass contained just about the best imagery I've ever read, though the lack of verbs made it a bit tedious.
Anyway, yes. I'm going to read the classics. I'll start with the A's -- Maybe Jane Austen or Maya Angelou. Then I'll move on to the B's -- both Brontës and Pearl S. Buck. Then onto the J's! Kidding.
Maybe I'll go by the alphabet; maybe I'll go by ISBN number. Regardless, I will be better read. I will be able to hold my own when people bring up The Last of the Mohicans in a conversation regarding the Fed's decision to fight inflation by keeping interest rates even for now (K'thunkchuck is a Mohican name, right?) or when the cashier at the deli makes a veiled reference to Cry, the Beloved Country, I can knowingly say ... whatever I'd say once I read it.
Now you might be asking yourself: what does this have to do with me?
Well, I'll tell you. I need your books.
No, not really. Instead, I'm throwing down a challenge. I'm sure there are books out there that you've always told yourself you were going to read one day. I'm daring you to join me in this endeavor. Next time you go to the book store, instead of that new Grisham, pick up that old Tolstoy. Instead of James Patterson, try James Joyce or Henry James. Jennifer Weiner might be good in bed, but I hear Flannery O'Connor knows a good man is hard to find. I'll stop now, but you get my point.
So join the movement! Better yourself! Better you than me! Better butter makes batter less bitter!
See? This is what you're reading instead? You and I both need help.
Hmmm...I wonder if Harry has a classics section.
A native of Elkins Park, PA, Adam Kraemer spends way too much of his time repeating "K-R-A-E..." He moved to New York City in 1998 and earned Master's in Journalism at NYU; don't let his writing fool you. He feels he is best known for saying the things no one is thinking, but afterwards wish they had been. He spends his free time wondering where all his free time goes and why he can never come up with a decent kicker for the ends of his articles.
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6.6.08 @ 1:37p
Adam's not kidding about having memorized the beginning of "The Canterbury Tales". I was in the same High School English class with him, and had to do the same thing. The funny thing is that I still can recite it as well. I would have no idea how to spell the words, though.
6.6.08 @ 1:40p
My senior year in highschool, I placed second in a national essay competion about Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead".
I read the first 50 pages, the last 25 pages, and scanned about every 50th page in between.
Oddly, I have no desire to go back and re-read it. I did my pennance actually reading "Tess of the d'Urbervilles" that same year.
6.6.08 @ 1:49p
Crap. Add another one to the "should have read" list.
6.6.08 @ 2:42p
I tried to read Moby Dick. It didn't take.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles is short, at least!
6.6.08 @ 2:45p
Loved Moby Dick, but Tess of the d'Urbervilles didn't take.
I figure it's my lot in life to be the one person who actually likes those big, difficult books by dead white men.
6.7.08 @ 6:37a
Hemingway was not the greatest American writer of the 20th century. Faulkner was. If you haven't at least read the Snopes trilogy you cannot claim to be totally civilized. IMFO, of course. You can also do worse than Fitzgerald or the hoopdeedoodle of Cannery Row and the Grapes of Wrath. (Steinbeck both.) Thomas Wolfe only wrote four novels. Look Homeward, Angel is the great American one, so you can stop trying to write it, it's already been done. IMFO, of course. Of course, if you haven't read Kerouac you cannot claim to be barbaric (I mean that in a good way. I like barbarians.) (I like savages, too, but I can't think of any good savage writers offhand.) There are a lot of really great women writers, too, but my
Sometimesheimer's is interfering with my dredging up their names right now from the depths of my alleged memory. Have your people call my people later.
dr. jay gross
6.7.08 @ 9:03a
Hemingway wrote it ALL; 'The Sun Also Rises', 'Death in the Afternoon', 'The Old Man and the Sea'.... He wrote from his own experiences and that's what makes a great author. But, if you really want to torture yourself, read James Joyce.
I heard last week that books are going to disappear and be replaced by video and graphic virtual reality. That may be true for the current high school crowd, but there's nothing better than a book for adventure, fantasy, and romance. (OK, there's some that make great fire starters.)
6.7.08 @ 12:20p
I'm in the same boat. Now, as an adult, whenever I find myself reaching for a Tom Clancy novel or some other mind candy, I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt. I should be reading Dracula or one of the other dozen or so books I refused to read for English 1G my Freshman year in high school.
The "G" stood for "gifted" by the way. Turns out that if you don't read those books, you're no longer a G in theirs. Get it, G? For the record, on the other end of the spectrum was English 1S. I've entertained myself for the last fifteen years wondering what the "S" *really* meant. Anyway, I both digress and embarrass myself.
So, reading (like most anything) results in a great deal of anxiety. Thus, I don't do it. If you want a stack of unread classics for the summer, stop by and you can take them.
6.7.08 @ 7:04p
Damn. Your column pointed out that I haven't done as much "serious" or classic reading since high school. These days, I pick mostly contemporary books for entertainment-based reasons. I've got copies of The Prince and Beowulf waiting for me to read them, but I think they're somewhere under The Complete Persepolis, Practical Magic, and Kitchen Confidential.
6.7.08 @ 9:51p
"S" probably stood for "Remedial."
6.8.08 @ 9:46p
I actually had a choice to take either olde english lit or modern. Beowulf or Beckett.......
Well, "Waiting for Godot" was kind of bizzare but fun!
Alex: I currently have "Stacked" sitting on top of "John Adams" so don't think you're the only one with the "will read later" pile
6.9.08 @ 12:26a
Heh, Beth, I have the "will read later" pile, along with a "how long ago did I buy this to read?" pile.
6.9.08 @ 12:13p
I was fixated on Steinbeck in my teens. If you haven't read "Of Mice and Men" and "Grapes of Wrath," you must do so.
I keep telling myself I'll finally read Jane Austen. Somehow, I managed to miss her, though I've read many of the classics--many handed to me by my "blue stocking" grandmother. I'l make those my goal. As a Russian major, I read Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, and many others, plus a number of Soviet realists (ugh) and Russian utopian novelits.
By the way, if you have not read the full "Alice and Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," they are also essential reading.
6.9.08 @ 12:29p
Oh, I agree. I try to re-read Lewis Carrol at least once every few years.
6.9.08 @ 2:18p
By the way, I just re-read some of the comments above. Brian--you are truly unique. I don't think I know anyone who could read comfortably through "Moby Dick." Even worse, we were forced to read "Billy Budd," in the tenth grade. Aargh!
I liked the Thomas Hardy's novels --including "Tess...."
6.9.08 @ 2:28p
It just occurred to me that some of the best 20th Century novels were written by Heinlein ("Stranger in a Strange Land", Asimov (the "Foundation" novels), etc. They are often underplayed, because they are, good heavens, sci fi. But, they along with Orwell ("1984") and Huxley ("Brave New World") contributed greatly to 20th century literature.
A couple of other authors come to mind, also. Hermann Hesse ("Siddartha" and "The Bead Game") and Bulgakov ("Master and Margarita") and Nabokov ("Lolita").
6.9.08 @ 2:32p
I go back and forth between classic literature and contemporary stuff, but steer clear of as much pulp as I can. Life's too short, and I got my fill of Grisham and Stephen King and Crichton when I was a kid.
Just finished "Anna Karenina". Enjoyed it but prefer Dostoevsky's stuff. "Moby Dick" is the devil.
6.9.08 @ 2:42p
To put the icing on the cake and respond to Jay, "Ulysses" is by far my favorite book. It took me six months to even get through the first (less interesting) section, but once I broke through, it became an astonishing document of humanity; I quite literally find something new every time I pick it up. Difficult, yes, but the rewards (to me) are exceptionally great.
Heinlein, on the other hand, I've never been able to appreciate. I like "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress," but beyond that, I've never particularly cared for anything else of his that I've read. Fans keep telling me I haven't read the right book, but I hear that after every book I try.
I actually find the Alice books a bit disturbing but effective, because they feel so much like being trapped in a nightmare where you (taking Alice's place) don't understand the rules and every other character keeps informing you how wrong you are.
6.9.08 @ 2:46p
...But if we're going to talk good SF, I'd hold up the best stories of James Tiptree Jr. and Theodore Sturgeon with any non-genre writing. I also keep finding that many of my favorite pop-culture authors share with me an appreciation of Cordwainer Smith, my favorite cult SF writer, but he's a weird taste to have and definitely not for everyone's palate.
6.12.08 @ 10:15a
How long does it take for a great book to become a classic?
6.12.08 @ 10:33a
It depends on the establishment trends. Dickens became "classic" almost immediately, while Wuthering Heights took years. Sir Walter Scott used to be a classic, but now he's more of a forgotten writer. By the time the modernists came along, English departments were well established and I bet they became classics must more quickly.
My 2 cents: I hate Tess of the D'Urbervilles, have a certain amount of respect for Moby Dick, and love Jane Austen (I find something new every time I read Pride and Prejudice. And I recommend The Sun Also Rises, but stay away from The Old Man and the Sea if you value your time at all. Of course, I also dislike fishing.
11.7.08 @ 4:38p
I began Crime and Punishment when you first wrote this article, reading it off and on. I just finished. Was there an election or something?
11.7.08 @ 5:20p
Yes. Very similar themes to the book you just read.
11.7.08 @ 5:34p
I should mention that I was also in that high school english class with you & David. I had forgotten all about "Whan that Aprille..." Thanks, guys, for bringing it back.
I think I read the opposite books as you, Adam. I remember finishing Wuthering Heights & The Scarlet Letter, but I know I never made it through Rebecca or The Odyssey. Maybe between the two of us we have a valid H.S. diploma.
11.7.08 @ 6:13p
We all had to read the Odyssey. Mr. Hougton.
11.7.08 @ 6:28p
Oh, I recall Mr. Houghton, and even his Foghorn Leghorn impression. I remember my seat on the left, by the window, and the assignment to read The Odyssey. I'm sure I took the test , but remember how you aced that test on The Plague?
I swear I finished some of the assigned books.
11.8.08 @ 9:54p
Actually, I don't know that I ever thanked Andy Myers enough for The Plague help. Question 1 had something to do with a midnight swim. The whispered conversation, verbatim:
Me (out the side of my mouth): There was a midnight swim?
Me (inspired): Was it in the Mediterranean?
And I wrote about what had been drilled into our heads that the Mediterranean represented. If the midnight swim had been in someone's backyard pool, I would have been screwed.