Most of us struggled through reading a few examples of classic 19th century English literature when we were teenagers. Not because we wanted to, but because they were required for school. For some, that was the magic introduction to Jane Eyre, or Pride and Prejudice, or Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. A world of romance, comedy of manners, and adventure opened up to us. For the boys who were forced to read Jane Eyre instead of being allowed to read Kim, maybe the assignment was pure torture. But probably good practice for going on dates as adults to see dreadful chick flicks like…oh, anything with Meg Ryan, for instance.
Back in high school, another often-assigned book was one of Charles Dickens’ most depressing works, Great Expectations. For years on end, the book’s young narrator is led to believe that he has some financial benefactor who will take care of his future. And meanwhile, he falls in love with a selfish young woman who very obviously does not return his devotion. And he meets up with a crazy old rich lady whose life stopped on her wedding day when she was jilted. I think she wanders around wearing her tattered wedding gown, but I don’t remember the details. And I don’t want to. It was a downer book. Offhand, I don’t recall any classic 19th century book more likely to tell a teenager to give up now, that life is going to punch you in the gut, and so why bother. Even Anna Karenina (which to put it bluntly ends very badly for Anna) is not depressing like Great Expectations because it doesn’t insist on the folly of having dreams.
By far the most scorned of all the school classics was Silas Marner. This short tale by George Eliot, aka Marianne Evans, tells the story of a cottage weaver and his dainty daughter. All I remember from it is that Marner at one point has a seizure while leaning against a fence and freezes in that position. He is presumed dead, but he isn’t dead. I can’t remember why that mattered in the plot. But I did learn the term “catatonic fit” from reading about it. Unlike most of my peers, I quite liked Silas Marner at the time just for the daughter’s romance. (And the fit, of course.) From the comments many people have made about that book, I’m strictly in the minority. And I’ve never had a desire to revisit the book.
But a recent revisitation of another kind has started me thinking. I saw “Macbeth,” Verdi’s opera, not Shakespeare’s play, on one of the HD simulcasts at a movie theater ($20 for an opera ticket can’t be beat), and I quite enjoyed it. I’d seen it years before and disliked it so much that I rose from my pricey orchestra seat at the Metropolitan Opera at intermission and never went back. This time, I just loved it. Loved the singing, loved the characterization, loved all but one stupid crowd scene. Operas are full of stupid crowd scenes at the beginning of acts, and I am convinced they’re there so people can come back late from intermission and not miss anything important. Anyway, now that I’ve revised my opinion of “Macbeth,” I am wondering if there are other cultural experiences I should expose myself to again, in case my appreciation of them has changed through time and life experience. Not marionettes, though. I think they’re creepy.
And that leads me to a question. Should I reread Silas Marner, looking for the literary merit this time, and not holding on desperately to any vestige of a romance? How many classics that I slogged through in high school and college should I try again, hoping to find a different perspective? And should I bother with lesser literary works? Should I attempt to read Gone with the Wind again? I tried to when I was a teenager and I hated all the characters so much I hardly got through the first chapter. (And I’ve never even seen the movie.) Should I try again, hoping that the distance of time and maturation will change my opinion? Or should I just keep on slowly reading other classic books, ones that I’ve never read before? There’s a limit to the number of books any person can read in a lifetime. I’ve already spent years and years wallowing happily in romances and murder mysteries and self-help books and whatever. My list of classics to be read goes down by about three books a year. If I have to reread them, I’ll never finish.
So many books, so little time.