Thursday, January 24, 2008

Timeliness and the Reading of Classics

"One time I made for myself a formidable list of classics which I proposed to read during the year. Papa looked it over and approved, but he gave me good advice.

"'Start each one, but if it doesn't hold your attention, either you don't understand the style, or it is beyond you in some other way. It won't do you any good to read anything that doesn't interest you, because you won't remember it. Set it aside. But continue to try to read it, and one day it will rush in and fill a great void.'"

--Elizabeth Borton de Treviño, in The Hearthstone of My Heart.

The author goes on to tell how thirty-five years later, after many false starts, something finally clicked. At last it was the right moment to read War and Peace, and it did indeed fill a great void.

I can think of many books which suffer from being read at the wrong time. I was made to read Moby Dick when I was in junior high. Boooooring! The only bits that held my interest were the ones detailing how whales were cut up. I've never given it another chance, though I daresay I'd get more out of it now that I'm 55 than I did when I was 13.

My husband used to say that there were some books that could not be fully appreciated until one had reached middle age. He identified Brideshead Revisited as one of these and warned all of our children against reading it until they were at least 40. (Naturally, this only incited them to read it as soon as possible.)

Some books which I blithely enjoyed in my youth strike me with greater force now. A few months ago I reread A Lantern in her Hand by Bess Streeter Aldrich, a novel about a pioneer woman which I'd read countless times when I was a girl. But now I could not read it without weeping because I've actually experienced the same things which the protagonist did: motherhood, widowhood, the death of a child, etc. (She'd also had artistic and musical talent, but it was a potential that she'd never got around to developing -- though she'd been able to pass these gifts on to her children. That also struck a chord!)

And though Dickens was one of my favorite authors when I was young, I couldn't bear to read him for many after I became mother. So many dreadful things seem to happen to the young, orphaned children in his novels, and my sympathies were too quick and too tender.

I wish now that I had not discarded the copy of Pamela which was required reading my freshman year of college. I think I'd be ready for it now.


sartorias said...

Pamela will make you laugh, now that you know something aboutt the period, and about the lit of the time. It's a howler!

Esther said...

Beautiful post! The only Dickens novel I have read is A Tale of Two Cities because like you, the others seemed to heartbreaking.

At present I want to attempt the Brothers Karamazov. After reading your post, I just may.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...


I'll have to track down a copy. Right now I'm enjoying Richardson's _Familiar Letters_. You can see how he's just about to make the leap into fiction.


Now that my children are all grown up, I find that I can read Dickens again. Good luck with Brothers Karamzov! That's one I haven't attempted yet, though a couple of my kids enjoyed it.

rhinemouse said...

Brothers K is good but does suffer from some very boring bits (which I will no doubt appreciate in another twenty years).

Crime and Punishment, though--that one is *impossible* to put down.

jawats said...

I used to hear that one could not truly appreciate Lear without being at least 40 (or somesuch age...)


Entropy said...

What a insightful post. I feel that way about Brideshead. I want to read it but I just cannot get into it. I'll keep trying...maybe in 10 years I'll love it!

peregrinator said...

Great post! It's interesting to me that readers are so often compelled to go back and try again with books read at the wrong time.

My worst book-at-the-wrong-time experience, oddly enough, was with St. Therese of Liseaux. I picked up Story of a Soul when I was about 13, and was horrified at her sentimentality. It completely turned me off to spiritual reading (I thought that every spiritual writer would be like her) for years! Later in life Story of a Soul was on the syllabus of a class I was teaching, so I reluctantly tried again- and found that I have a much greater appreciation for her now that I am able to separate the substance from the sentimentality. (Although she's still not my favorite.)

By contrast, Brideshead is a book I read too young (by your husband's estimation) but really love. I did try to read Evelyn Waugh (some exerpt from Vile Bodies, I think) also when I was a teenager (it was billed as hysterically funny in an anthology I had) and found that I just didn't understand it, so I didn't try him again 'til after college when I came in on my sister as she was watching the very end of the TV adaptation of Brideshead. I was so fascinated that I picked up the book and it's been one of my very favorites since.

Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I still have trouble grasping the whole St. Therese thing (i.e. why some people get so excited about her), but I only got around to reading her a year and a half ago.

I'm so glad you liked Brideshead. One really funny thing I've noticed is that some people who've read it find the ending to be a real downer. But others find it gloriously triumpant and just feel really up about it. (I belong in the latter camp.) I wondered if it had anything to do with whether one "got" the whole Catholic thing, but one person I know, who definitely is not Catholic, has the same perception of the ending I do. So what is it that causes this dichotomy?

(I don't know if I've explained this very well. But like Tigger, I haven't had any breakfast yet.)

peregrinator said...

Boy, people are strange! That's the best ending to any novel I've ever read

Good question, though. Don't know if I have an answer...

Maybe the difference in reactions has to do with whether or not the reader sees Ryder as having gained a relationship with God...? And how overridingly important that relationship is...??(Trying to imagine how someone not Catholic might have a positive perception of the ending...)

Or perhaps those disappointed are looking for an ending that provides a more definite resolution to things between Ryder and the Flytes or just want to see Ryder happy in a more worldly way...

I suppose one could just think it good that Ryder is free of the Flytes (cynical) or think that the continued use of the chapel represents continued tradition (conservative.)