Wednesday, February 16, 2011
What's the Point of Reading Classics?
I know this is considered classic literature and I should treat it with deference, but really? Seriously? Someone thought this was great writing?
I know the story itself is supposed to be revelatory. I know this because I couldn't understand a single sentence in the first 20 pages and resorted to reading summaries and analysis online to give me some sort of bearing. It is an expose on the cruelty of colonization and the ivory trade, a revelation that was, in its time, a picture of a world most people didn't get to see. It was The Jungle of its day. [The Jungle by Upton Sinclair focused on the evils in the meat packing industry, and the uproar raised by the book inspired labor and agriculture reform. That book I loved.]
I get that there's a place for books that, at the time of publication, were life-view-altering, whether or not the writing itself was well done. I wrote about that when I read Ten Days In A Madhouse last year. But I wonder now, in the age of live news broadcast from around the world, of thorough history lessons complete with old newsreel footage or faded photos, of horror films in which each tries to trump the disgust factor of the last, is Heart of Darkness so shocking anymore? Is the fact that a man might get so greedy for ivory that he would shoot the natives to keep them complicit, that he would - cast alone into this very foreign land - lose himself and eventually turn to cannibalism - so shocking anymore? Am I totally callous for feeling like this is what I hear every day on the nightly news?
Over time, the things that Conrad reveals in his book - horrific in their time - have become just another chapter in the history books that kids read in school. True, it doesn't make them less awful (and shouldn't), but the commonness of the tale now should mean for something to stand the test of time, it must also be beautifully or strikingly written.
So is the value in the story itself, in its place as ground-breaking, or in its true literary worth?
The writing itself drove me mad. Conrad needed to read Strunk and White, is my opinion. Would it hurt to break the paragraphs into smaller paragraphs? Would it hurt to indent each time a new character talked, so that the dialog looked like dialog on the page and not just a jumble of quotation marks?
The sentences themselves seemed determined to be as long as possible to say as little as possible, in as confusing a way as possible. If I hadn't looked up the synopsis ahead of time, I probably wouldn't have understood the first part of the book, which may not say much about my ability to read. Still, should a book only be written for the literary brilliant?
It is a story within a story within a story - a metaphor where the trip deep into the darkest parts of the jungle is the same as going deep into the darkest parts of man. And that drove me crazy. Some nameless narrator was telling the story about someone telling the story of going down the Congo and running into someone else who told the story about Kurtz, who'd gone insane in the jungle and given himself over to the darkest side of himself. There were very few scenes; it was narration, as if someone sat in your kitchen telling a story about a story they'd heard from someone else who'd told it to them.
It reminds me why I loved the Pacific University program so much - because we get to create our own reading lists and not be forced to read what some academic thought was classic, important literature. If I had to read two years worth of stuff like this, I'd never make it.
I don't want to downplay the importance of classics. I put this book on my list because it seemed like a book I should read. And as much as I hated reading it, I have to admit that I'm glad I did, if only not to feel like an ignoramus when this comes up in discussion. I've been on the receiving end of the "What? You call yourself an author and you've never read that??" before. It's not fun.
Although, one could also say there are far too many books - even if you want to limit to classical literature - for any one person to read them all. I've read quite a few of Shakespeare's plays, but not all. I've read much of the Bronte and Austin books, but not all. I've read a lot of Flannery O'Connor, a smattering of Faulkner and Hemingway, but none of Chaucer or Ayn Rand.
I read three of the Best of 2010 list, but I didn't read Franzen's Freedom (which, trust me, in certain circles puts me distinctly on the outside). I will read over 80 books in the next two years, and I will still end up on blogs and in conferences and at book clubs where I will feel I didn't read the right things, or read enough.
So why bother?
I went to summer arts program when I was in high school with other students from all over the state of Virginia. One day, in lecture class, we all got talking about why we have to read certain classics. And one person said (this was 25 years ago, so you can tell what an impression it made on me): "We are all from different high schools, spread out over a huge area. And yet, when we showed up today, every one of us has read Romeo and Juliet and The Red Badge of Courage. We all have that in common. And now we have a place from which to start a discussion."
Is this why we continue to read books that fell off the bestseller list a hundred years ago?
Tell me - do you read books that are considered classics, and why or why not? And have you read the Heart of Darkness and thoroughly disagree with me about its worth?