Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's the Point of Reading Classics?

This week I read Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad and it nearly killed me. Four days, ninety pages... torture.

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?


  1. I read HEART OF DARKNESS for the first time in high school and my teacher at the time had such an enthusiasm for it, that I fell in love with it too. I read it again in college and several more times after that for fun. I personally count it among my favorites.

  2. I feel the same way that if I haven't read all of Jane Austen's books then some how I'm missing out. I've been trying to read more classic novels, but I find the more I do, the more I wonder why they became classics in the first place.

  3. Lenore - I have another friend who feels the same way. I think reading it in a class, especially with a teacher who loves it and can make it come alive, makes a huge difference.

    I really did feel like I was missing out on something. I wanted it to be fantastic, and I just had a real struggle getting through it. Maybe now that I know what it's about, I can go back and re-read it later and enjoy the language of it more.

    I wonder if the push to get through two books a week also soaks up some of the joy of just settling in and reading. I felt like I had to get through it because I had another one I had to read waiting in the wings.

  4. Patti - there's just so much out there to read, I wonder as a current writer what I should be reading. The classic are important to have under your belt, and yet many agents say none of those books would be published today if they were submitted, which means it's even more crucial to read current books so we know what IS being published.

    Of course, there's always the personal opinion that comes in. No book, current or classic, is loved and admired by all who read it. I absolutely LOVED Out of Africa, but I know people who couldn't stand it.

    So many books, so little time!

  5. I love the classics and embraced everything that was required reading in high school (including Heart of Darkness) except Billy Budd. I hated that one.

    The Heart of Darkness was especially helpful to have read when I took an African novels class in college, comparing the outsider's "dark natives" mindset with the African voice was really remarkable.

  6. I remember enjoying this book but maybe I should read it again! LOL. I just watched your book trailer - it's great! I'm waiting for the go-ahead to release mine so I'm having fun looking at other peoples.

  7. Catherine - I think I must be the only person on earth who didn't like it! Maybe I should read it again! :)

    Congrats on your upcoming release! I look forward to seeing your book trailer. They are so much fun!

    Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  8. There are so many classics that I hear others raving about, but when I sat down to read them, couldn't even finish them. It made me wonder sometimes if there was something wrong with me? Am I not a deep enough reader to get this? I've come to realize that people just have different tastes as to what makes anything a classic for themselves.

  9. I haven't read any Conrad. Dickens, Hemingway, and O'Connor I loved for their prose, style, and story. I have vivid images of characters from stories by each of those writers, but I do of writers that are ALIVE too! Who can ever forget Babs, once they meet her?

    There is so much to read out there! And many writers to learn from. Now my season of reading is supporting new writers. I see the benefit of reading classics for study, and maybe that season will hit me again, and I shall try Conrad and send you a note when I do, if I make it through the first 5 pages!

  10. I had a hard time with Heart of Darkness, too. In fact, I've recently been reading from an anthology of twentieth century British lit, and I...skipped that one. I did read Conrad's bio though, and it maybe be helpful to note that COnrad was born Polish, and learned English in his twenties. Maybe writing in English with English as his second language makes his writing confusing. (What other people call brilliant literature may just be someone not writing perfect English.)

  11. You know one of the reasons I like you so much, Heidi? Because you're so honest and normal! :o)

    I've never even HEARD of Heart of Darkness, so I "Googled" it to see when it was published, 1902, eh?

    I must confess, I haven't read many classics. I go through phases where I try it for a while because I think, hmmm...I'm a writer and I really should be able to speak knowledgeably about the classics. But the phases don't last, and I revert back to reading good old-fashioned genre fiction. ;o)

  12. Up until about 15 years ago Classics was one of my reading mainstays, but then I started branching out and reading for fun. Now I rarely read a classic (except for my faves and occasionally one I haven't read before). The thing with a lot of the classics is the levels of interpretation and the depths of the symbolism, etc. I have to agree with you on Conrad's writing though. I'm not a fan of his style.

  13. the trick is to find the classics that speak to YOU personally...they are out there and they are amazing. We should never read a book because we feel like we are "supposed" to...I tried that and it never works.

    interesting thoughts here.

  14. I used to do things because I was "supposed to" but now I read or do things because I want to. I don't appologize for what I choose to buy and read. I proudly stand in the ya and mg sections at B & N talking to tweens and teens about books. :) My brilliant daughter however is drawn to the classics...

  15. I agree, Tess. There are some amazing classics out there I do love. And I chose to read this one, so I guess I shouldn't complain too much, but as I put it on my reading list for school, I couldn't just not read it when I realized this wasn't one of those that would speak to me! :) Next time I'll read the first few pages before I commit. :)

  16. I STARTED the Heart of Darkness. But I think you make the most poignant point that we're not as easily shocked as we once were. We sad the horrible side of human nature every time we turn on the TV (which I don't have) But still.

    I do feel the need to read the classics. I've read all of Austen and Bronte (not ALL of Shakespeare but most) I went through a year where I read everything by Faulkner (thank goodness my life was good in that year b/c wow) I've read a lot of classics, but also haven't read a lot of classics.

    I like the idea that when we do, we're given some common ground. That's a good point, but I've decided that life's too short for me to read something I'm not enjoying - SO, I start a lot of books that don't get finished.
    Will I admit in company that there are classics that sit half-read on my shelf?
    I'm not sure yet. But I have to say that the vain side of me might be tempted to lie... maybe...