Our Love-Hate Relationship with Classic Novels

Twain quote

As an English major and teacher, I have read a lot of novels. I have also forgotten many novels old (classic) and new. Mostly, I have enjoyed and sometimes loved those I have read. So, when I saw an article about the most loved and hated classics (according to Goodreads users), I had to give it a read.

Mark Twain (who wrote some classics) said that “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” The author of the article compares reading classic literature to “going for a 6am jog. It has its loyal fans but few enjoy it. Most people want to tell others they do; sometimes people experiment with it, but mostly, people just don’t like it at all.”

As a teacher, it pains me to say that some classics that might make your “hated” list were probably required reading in a classroom. But some of the most popular classics are also assigned in American schools.

“Required reading” is not the way you really want someone to encounter literature, but if some of these novels were not required, people would never experience them.

These are also often the titles that students turn to cheats as a substitute for the actual book. In my student days, those cheats were Cliff Notes and Monarch Notes, but now the Internet gives them Spark Notes and even websites where they can buy or just download essays.

The novels on both the loved and hated lists are all good books, though they won’t be loved by all. I learned long ago that with books (fiction and non-fiction) and films, you hated book or movie is someone’s absolute favorite.

When I was in my most rabid reading days (ages 11-19), I devoured books like I eat potato chips and popcorn now. I would read a favorite author’s entire works. That was easier with Salinger and Fitzgerald and harder with Hemingway and Steinbeck.

I’ve written before about the Classics Illustrated Comics that I loved in my youth. They exposed me to many classic novels. Some of those readings led me to the novels. Moby-Dick is definitely an example of that. Many of those classic novels were way over my ability in elementary school but I made my ways through them and probably benefitted as a reader and writer.

I know the comics led me to read some novels by H.G. Wells (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau) and Jules Verne (Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,00 Leagues Under the Sea) and Arthur Conan Doyle (lots of Sherlock Holmes and also The Lost World)

The Lost World comic, novel and feature film (1960 version) were the Jurassic Park of my (and Michael Crichton‘s) youth and had a big impact on my reading and thinking about science, if in a fictional and theoretical way.

I suspect that there are some classics that I think I read that I only actually read in comic book form.  I certainly had read a lot of comic book Shakespeare well before I read Julius Caesar in sophomore English class. I could speak pretty well in high school “cocktail-party conversations” about Macbeth and Hamlet if ever came up.

Novels become classics over time. I was once told that the book had to be 25+ years old but there is no rule. The Godfather makes the list looking a bit out-of-place to me next to the other titles. (Though I will always question a book or film labeled as a classic when it only came out that year.)

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville is my best example. It is a book I love and have read multiple times. I would hesitantly recommend it though. It is not an easy read. The vocabulary and style are quite old-fashioned.  It takes on all the biggest themes. I would never want to teach it in a class where it was required. I would love to discuss it with other readers who enjoyed it. Still, despite my hesitation, should it be dropped from reading lists? That may be the only way people will encounter it. Perhaps, it should be one of several choices along with other classics. I used to give students such choices and groan when someone chose the shortest book. A short novel that you hate is much more painful than a longer one that you enjoy – though young students rarely accepted that as true.

Like Moby-Dick, Melville’s contemporary, Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. also appears to be hated. It’s a lot shorter. So is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness but that doesn’t mean easier.

Given a choice of what to require in a classroom, I would go with East of Eden or To Kill a Mockingbird if it meant that my students would actually read the book and leave it with a good feeling. When I taught middle school, I taught The Outsiders many times, not only because it is a well-written novel and totally appropriate for that age group, but because they loved it despite it being almost a historical novel for them today and it having a good and pretty faithful film version (the media cheat) that they also loved but didn’t choose as a substitute.

The article also notes that Don Quixote (1615) is the first classic in the data and the next is Robinson Crusoe which came out in 1719. Where are the classics in between?

The top classic-producing authors are Jane Austen and Charles Dickens on the other side of the pond and Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in America. But in this love/hate thing, quantity does not mean quality to readers.

Charles Dickens (who I mostly like/love and have taught with mixed success) gets average scores.

Jane Austen (who I was required to read and never enjoyed) has multiple truly beloved classic novels and has rabid fans for the movies and TV versions too.

Hemingway (who is very high on my loved list) is pretty much hated across all his novels. I would teach his “classic” short stories before attempting the novels.

Steinbeck (who I read voraciously in those teen years without ever being required to read) only gets some love for East of Eden. I suspect that being assigned The Grapes of Wrath wins it no love (but it is a great novel) and no one is assigning enjoyable his short novels like Cannery Row or Tortilla Flat. I taught and had students who loved Of Mice and Men. The Red Pony is short. I liked it and I taught it once. And only once.

What are your feelings about classics loved and hated,
and how much does it have to do with required reading assignments?
Did you discover some classics after your student days that you love?
Comments welcomed!

MOST HATED

MOST BELOVEDloved books

 

Naked Came the Stranger and I, Libertine

cover

I picked up this 1969 book, Naked Came the Stranger, at the library knowing that it is a literary hoax. It’s an erotic parody of the American literary culture of the 1960s. A Newsday columnist, Mike McGrady, came up with the idea to write a deliberately terrible book full of sex to prove that crap sells if it has sex in it.

It was written by 24 journalists though the cover said the author was Penelope Ashe. Penelope was portrayed by Billie Young, McGrady’s sister-in-law, in photographs and meetings with publishers.

It became a bestseller in 1969, so I guess he proved his point. When the hoax was revealed, the book became even more popular. What does that prove?

The writers were 19 men and 5 women including two Pulitzer Prize winners (Gene Goltz and Robert W. Greene) and journalist Marilyn Berger. Each chapter was written by a different author so the “style” varies. Supposedly, some chapters had to be severely edited because the first draft was “too good.”

The plot is about the hosts of a New York City morning radio talk show “The Billy & Gilly Show.” Gillian and William Blake seem to be a perfect couple, but Gillian finds out that Billy is having an affair. Her revenge is to cheat on him with a lot of men. The bulk of the book is those sexual adventures that allowed the many authors to have their own “short story.”

It’s hard to say that I would recommend this book. There are plenty of better books to read, but it is an interesting literary hoax. I did skim some chapters. It succeeds at being amusingly terrible. It falls short on eroticism.

McGrady made a few more bucks off the hoax by writing ‘Stranger Than Naked, or How to Write Dirty Books for Fun and Profit’ about the hoax the following year.

There was also an “adult” film based on the book also titled ‘Naked Came the Stranger.’ It was made without any involvement from the book’s authors.

front coverAnother literary hoax that I have written about here is the 1956 novel I, Libertine which started as a practical joke by late-night radio raconteur Jean Shepherd. Shep was grumping about the way bestseller lists were compiled then. In the 1950s, the lists were determined from sales figures and from the number of requests for new and upcoming books at bookstores.

Shepherd’s practical joke was to tell his listeners to go to bookstores and ask for Frederick R. Ewing’s novel, I, Libertine. He said it was about a very libertine woman of the 1700s. It was a 1950s sexual tease plot.

back coverThe joke got legs when some of Shep’s devoted listeners (“night people”) decided to not only ask for the book and try to get it on the bestseller lists, but they also planted references to the book and author in the social media of the time – newspapers, letters to the editor etc. It was a hoax on the “day people” and publishers and the bestseller lists.

Demand for the book got it on The New York Times Best Seller list even though it didn’t exist. A publisher (Ian Ballantine), a novelist (Theodore Sturgeon), and Shepherd met for lunch and decided to capitalize on the hoax for real. Sturgeon was hired to crank out a novel in a month based on Shep’s outline.

There was a planted rumor that the book had been “banned in Boston” even before its release. On September 13, 1956, Ballantine Books published I, Libertine simultaneously in hardcover and paperback editions. Shepherd was shown as author Ewing on the book’s back cover. A few weeks before publication, The Wall Street Journal exposed the hoax, though word had gotten out already.

At least with this literary hoax, the proceeds were donated to charity.

 

 

Christmas Book Flood

book tree
A book tree. I suppose it should be topped with chocolates for Jolabokaflod but bourbon isn’t a terrible idea.

I got a book for Christmas this year and also an Amazon gift card to buy books on paper, digitally or even Audible audiobooks (my current favorite format). I don’t know if books are still very popular gifts, but in Iceland it seems that they rank high on the Christmas gift list.

I didn’t know this before but Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. 93% of Icelanders read at least one book a year. 73% of Americans read at least one book. Iceland ranks as the third most literate country in the world. No, America is not number one – Finland and Norway take the top two spots.

The majority of books sold in Iceland are sold from late September to early November, but it kicks off when the Bokatidindi catalog of new publications from the Iceland Publishers Association is distributed free to every Icelandic home. This national tradition is called Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas/Yule Book Flood.”

Giving books as presents, generally on Christmas Eve, is part of their culture. Some families select a book for each member of the family, and others buy a book they would recommend and each family member chooses the one they’d most like to read. Many people then spend the Eve reading one of their gifts. This is all about physical books, not e-books.

The Book Flood tradition began during World War II when gifts were restricted. One item that was less restricted was imported paper so books became a good gift choice.

Burning Slaughterhouse-Five

book burning
Photo by Movidagrafica Barcelona from Pexels

On November 10, 1973, school officials in Drake, North Dakota, burned copies of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

If you haven’t read the novel – and you should – it is the story of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who survives the bombing of Dresden. On February 13, 1945, allied aircraft dropped 4,500 tons of high-explosive and incendiary “firebombs” that devastated an area of around 13 square miles of that city.

Vonnegut enlisted in January 1943, three months after his mother’s suicide. He was captured by the Germans and held as a prisoner in Dresden. He and some of his fellow POWs survived because they had been herded into an underground slaughterhouse meat locker called “Schlachthof-Funf.” Vonnegut called Dresden “possibly the world’s most beautiful city” and writing 20 years after the event he did not even try to describe the bombing because it was so horrific.

After the war, he went to graduate school (anthropology) worked as a publicist at General Electric, got married and had three kids and adopted three more, and tried writing novels. Kurt Vonnegut wasn’t a well-known novelist but he had published five novels before Slaughterhouse-Five. He had received some recognition for two sci-fi satires, Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, but it was Slaughterhouse-Five that made him an internationally-known writer.

cover

The novel was a best-seller and received critical acclaim and eventually began to be taught in colleges and some high schools. It has also been banned many times, for being obscene, violent, and for what is sometimes seen as an unpatriotic description of the war.

In the North Dakota case, a young high school English teacher assigned Slaughterhouse-Five to his students. Most of them later said that they liked the book and some thought it was the best book they had read in school. When they were still reading and discussing the novel, one student complained to her mother about the obscene language. The parent went to the principal, who took the complaint up the chain of command. The school board voted that it should be not only confiscated from the students but also burned.

Some students didn’t want to give up their books, but officials searched lockers and confiscated all copies. A custodian at Drake’s combination elementary and high school put 32 paperback copies of Slaughterhouse-Five in the furnace beneath the school gym.

The school board also reviewed the English department’s reading list and decided to burn Deliverance by James Dickey and a short-story anthology.

Vonnegut wrote a letter to one of the members of the Drake school board:

(excerpt)
Dear Mr. McCarthy:
I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Drake School Board. I am among those American writers whose books have been destroyed in the now famous furnace of your school. […]
If you were to bother to read my books, to behave as educated persons would, you would learn that they are not sexy, and do not argue in favor of wildness of any kind. They beg that people be kinder and more responsible than they often are. It is true that some of the characters speak coarsely. That is because people speak coarsely in real life. […]
If you and your board are now determined to show that you in fact have wisdom and maturity when you exercise your powers over the education of your young, then you should acknowledge that it was a rotten lesson you taught young people in a free society when you denounced and then burned books — books you hadn’t even read. You should also resolve to expose your children to all sorts of opinions and information, in order that they will be better equipped to make decisions and to survive.
Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real.

I do recommend the novel. If you’re not a reader, there is a film version from 1972 directed by George Roy Hill. I wonder if any school board members had seen the film. I suspect they did not read the novel. And none of us can judge a novel by a film adaptation.

The film version of Slaughterhouse 5 does make clear the non-linear structure of the novel and the mixing in of science-fiction elements with the autobiographical WWII scenes. Billy Pilgrim lives segments of his life for a few minutes and sometimes gets unstuck in time and jumps years or decades into the past or future. Those jumps are not uncommon in films and in modern novels. Billy is a POW, then back to his work as an optometrist, then he is a plane crash survivor and then he’s a new father and even a UFO abductee. Vonnegut’s sci-fi is a big part of the novel as Billy is abducted by a race of fourth-dimensional beings called Tralfamadorians, who select him as an Earth specimen in their menagerie of lifeforms from across the universe.

But this is not a book review. This is the cautionary tale of censorship. A figurative firestorm hit Drake via the media in 1973. This little town of 650 people is still infamous for having burned those copies of what is more often considered to be a classic. The bannings of the novel continue.

Climbing Second Mountain

looking west
Looking west to Second Mountain from a ridge of First Mountain – part of the Watchung Mountains in New Jersey

I live between First and Second Mountain of the Watchung Mountains. In this valley, with its small river as a dividing line, I am between two large stages of my life.

There are lots of ways you can divide a lifetime . At 21, I would have said there was my childhood, high school, and college. Now, all three seem to be just one part of my life.

David Brooks has written The Second Mountain and I picked up the book at the library because of that title and where I live. Brooks uses the climb up the first mountain as a mostly self-centered one. I found online descriptions for this part of life as “in search of résumé virtues” and finding “the skills you bring to the marketplace.”

The younger Brooks has written about related topics in his New York Times columns. His earlier book, The Road to Character, examined some thinkers and inspiring leaders trying to find how they built a strong inner character.

I believe most of us feel that we should live a life larger than ourselves. That “road” he wrote about earlier might be the one up Second Mountain. On this second journey, we are looking to lead a more meaningful life. But all around you on the mountain is a self-centered world, so how do you accomplish your goal?

I read that second mountain is not the place for finding and acquiring  résumé virtues, but a time to secure “eulogy virtues.”  These are “the ones that are talked about at your funeral.”

Brooks wrote Bobos in Paradise which is subtitled “The New Upper Class and How They Got There,” and is described as the stories of some self-centered bourgeois bohemians who were somewhere between “1960s values and 1990s money.” In some ways his books chronicle his own “road to character” journey. Fifteen years after Bobos,  he was a 50-something who was try to find meaning and “save my own soul.”

Before I started reading the book, I read an excerpt online and listened to a sample and I connected immediately to several passages. Here is Brooks on that first mountain:

“Every so often, you meet people who radiate joy—who seem to know why they were put on this earth, who glow with a kind of inner light. Life, for these people, has often followed what we might think of as a two-mountain shape. They get out of school, they start a career, and they begin climbing the mountain they thought they were meant to climb. Their goals on this first mountain are the ones our culture endorses: to be a success, to make your mark, to experience personal happiness. But when they get to the top of that mountain, something happens. They look around and find the view . . . unsatisfying. They realize: This wasn’t my mountain after all. There’s another, bigger mountain out there that is actually my mountain.”

On the second mountain – and not everyone wants to go there or is able to climb it –  your life should move from self-centered to other-centered.

We all know this desire, even if we don’t really desire the same things. On second mountain, you desire things that are truly worth wanting. You lose the desire for things other people tell you to want. Interdependence and not independence. A life of commitment.

Brooks defines four commitments for this life of meaning and purpose. First, is a commitment to a spouse and family. Next is a commitment to a vocation. He also lists commitment to a philosophy or faith. Finally, is a commitment to a community.

Although Brooks looks within, he also looks at others who have lived committed lives.

This might sound like a book for older people, but t really is better read by younger people for its guidance in choosing a partner, vocation, philosophy, and how to begin putting commitments into the climb of first mountain.

Society is probably not going to help your climb the second mountain. Society favors the first mountain’s freedom, individualism, and putting self first.

Brooks says that if you get to the top of that first mountain and are “successful” you may still find yourself unsatisfied. He writes that these people “sense there must be a deeper journey they can take.”

But some people get knocked off first mountain. “Something happens to their career, their family, or their reputation. Suddenly life doesn’t look like a steady ascent up the mountain of success; it has a different and more disappointing shape.”

And other people have something happen that knocks them off the path if not off the mountain. He writes that “the death of a child, a cancer scare, a struggle with addiction, some life-altering tragedy that was not part of the original plan” Where are they? “Whatever the cause, these people are no longer on the mountain. They are down in the valley of bewilderment or suffering. This can happen at any age, by the way, from eight to eighty-five and beyond. It’s never too early or too late to get knocked off your first mountain.”

That passage caught me. As I said, I literally live in a valley and so I wondered if I am also between the first and second mountains of my life.

Writers can take metaphors and analogies too far. Life is not all mountains and valleys. I know that I sometimes still live on that first mountain, but I have also made my way up the second mountain. I suppose I do live oftentimes in the valley between.

Brooks’ “small rebellions” that lead to the second mountain are to rebel against your ego ideal, and to rebel against mainstream culture. I can see my explorations of Buddhism and other spiritual journeys as a way to battle ego. I am not much of a rebel against culture. I haven’t pursued money, power or fame, but some of that is more due to a lack of opportunities than some nobility on my part. I suspect that on the first mountain I would have easily grabbed at all three of those things if I had the chance. I’m not sure that now I would rebel. I truly am living in that valley.

Someone who rebels and alters their life at any age has moved from one mountain to another. The book gives examples from the radical lawyer who gives up a law practice and moves to Tibet or quits a consultant job to teach in an inner-city school. He writes “I have a friend who built a successful business in the Central Valley of California. She still has her business but spends most of her time building preschools and health centers for the people who work in her company. She is on her second mountain.”

I taught for 45 years. It wasn’t inner-city schools but I am very comfortable with the work I did and I truly feel I made a positive impact on my part of the world.

This past week I climbed up my nearby mountain to a hawk watch. I could see from my perch on First Mountain the more rural Second Mountain to the west. And looking east, I could see a more urban landscape.

And looking east from First Mountain, I can see New York City in the distance across the Hudson River.

This is not a spoiler, but I will tell you that toward the end of the book, David Brooks has a kind of epiphany when he is hiking in Aspen. He was in a bad place in his life, coming out of a failed marriage. He pauses in his walking to read a Puritan prayer about the redemptive power of suffering. He says that he felt “the presence of the sacred in the realities of the everyday.”

Some people will find their second mountain through a crisis or religion or a spiritual practice. Some people will find the sacred only when they arrive on second mountain.

I like Brooks’ recounting of a lunch he had with the Dalai Lama. “He didn’t say anything particularly illuminating or profound, but every once in a while he just burst out laughing for no apparent reason.”

There is a reason for the laughter, but it is not apparent to all.

Wait. Did You Read the Book or Just Listen to It?

brain scan

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I’m not the reader of books on paper or screens that I once was and it’s mostly a matter of time. Audiobooks allow me to multitask, which I’m sure many people will say is not the way to experience a book.

If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? I have friends who react to my audiobook habit by saying “But you were an English teacher!” I (sadly) knew a number of English teachers who rarely read books. I might have once felt guilty about not reading the physical book, but I don’t feel any guilt now. And I do still read some books and magazines on paper or screens. I certainly tried to get ahold of the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 800+ page novel, 11/22/63, this summer. But I read it on paper. Quite slowly.

I am glad to find new evidence that suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a book might not be so different.

You might have overlooked the research when you were flipping through a copy of the Journal of Neuroscience at the doctor’s office because the title of the article is of that academic (yawn) variety: “The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality.”

But what the researchers did was analyze brain scans of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of episodes from “The Moth Radio Hour.”

In the summary of the research that I read (on a screen!), after analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word. The brain scan data analysis showed that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium.

The researchers published their first interactive map of a person’s brain in 2016. This colored diagram shows a brain divided into about 60,000 parts, called voxels. They analyzed the data in each voxel to determine which regions of the brain process certain kinds of words. It’s pretty amazing to think that one section responded to terms like “father,” “refused,” and “remarried” which they classified as “social words” because they describe dramatic events, people or time.

Listening and reading showed that words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity. This was a result that surprised the researchers who expected (like my friends) that two different things were going on in my brain.

I have always thought, especially when I was teaching English, that people who struggle with reading either because they just don’t like to read or have dyslexia or some other real condition that makes reading really difficult can benefit from audiobooks. I wouldn’t have a problem with a student listening to the audiobook of an assigned text. It is certainly preferable to not reading it at all – and I know that happened with assigned reading.

So, listen to a book guilt-free!