Maybe we should just stop teaching the Classics.
Just a little NON-politics.
Years ago, I floated through high school and college without reading many of the classic novels of literature. I did read Moby Dick, For Whom The Bell Tolls, Animal Farm, Anna Karenina(more about this one later), and Ivanhoe. That is about it. For all the rest of my book reports I relied on Cliff Notes, or Comics Illustrated (an invaluable source).
Lately I decided to make up for the past and actually try for a little self improvement. I would forgo my usual reading of History, Fantasy and Science Fiction Novels, and books about football, and instead try to catch up on some of the most important novels of all time.
I turned to several online lists. There was the NY Times list, and the Modern Library list. There were several others, so I started reading about some of the novels which all of the lists seemed to agree on. WOW! Was that ever a slap in the face.
Now, understand, the world is a pretty tough place. If you are not a trust fund baby, or have a tenured Ivory Tower University position then there is a lot of struggle, a lot of fear, and a lot of disappointment in the average human life. It is not necessary, I suppose, for every work of literature to be uplifting, positive, or have a positive moral at the end. But why is it that nearly every so called Classic work of literature is such a damn utterly depressing, nihilistic piece of Glop!
Let’s begin with a book rated very high on all lists; “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In the first place, I never trust anyone who goes by three names. Especially when one of them is just an initial. F. Scott Fitzgerald sounds like it could be the name of a serial killer, or assassin.
Now this book is set in the time of the roaring twenties and concerns the wealthier class of Americans. The beautiful people, the smart set. If you have never read it, let me save you some time. A young guy named Nick hangs around Long Island and meets some rich people who throw cool parties. Among them is a mysterious and handsome go getter named Gatsby. Everyone screws everyone else’s wives and they all get drunk a lot.
Nick gets conflicting evidence that Gatsby is both a war hero and a bootlegger. Gatsby introduces Nick to mobsters. Things are not very upbeat but the writing is good, and the dialog is witty. Then things go downhill from there. One of the wives who was screwing around gets run over, Gatsby’s car is identified. Gatsby is killed in his pool by the woman’s husband who also commits suicide. Nick attends the funeral.
WHAT THE HELL? Considering the high level of teen suicides, I would not recommend this to an angst ridden youth. But believe me, Gatsby is a study in positive thinking compared to some of the others. Now it is said that good writing covers a multitude of sins, and that the object of literature is to provoke. Even if I agreed with those assumptions, it does not follow that the reader must be subjected to all that is most foul in society. And especially not all at once!
Also High on the list is “Anna Karenina” By Leo Tolstoy. Let’s see, this one seems to have it all. Anna is unfaithful to her Husband, her brother is unfaithful to his wife. Both women want divorces, but can’t get them. Anna makes a spectacle of herself in public and embarrasses the family. Her sister in law’s sister falls for her lover and messes up a possible marriage to a wealthy man. She eventually does marry this man but then his brother dies. Lot’s of people get sick. Anna’s lover rejects her, then she throws herself in front of a train.
OMG! By now I am reaching for the razor blades! Hey, guess what? If I had wanted to learn about how people who cannot control themselves screw up their lives I would just watch Doctor Phil.
But it gets better. There is “The Grapes of Wrath” By John Steinbeck. Now this one will fill you up with the warm and fuzzies boys and girls. This is the story of the Joad family, farmers who lose everything in the Dust bowl of the 1930’s. The son Tom Joad is a muderer out of prison. The family leaves Oklahoma for California with Tom’s pregnant sister Rose and Casy a former preacher who has lost his way.
They meet lot’s of destitute people. They almost starve, there are no jobs in California and they have to work as scabs in an orchard. They get in a fight with union thugs and Casy is killed while Tom murders again and has to flee, and Rose’s child is still born. By now the reader is wondering; What the hell did I do that was so bad, I have to suffer through this? Kill me now!
Then there is Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” about an angst ridden Young man who gets VD. And let’s not forget Nabokov’s “Lolita” the story of a man who ruins his life, and his family’s lives by having impure thoughts about a teenage girl (If only he had the internet). And wait! There is more. “Madame Bovary” by Gustav Flaubert, the Heroine of the story begins as an upper crust darling debutante, but is so demanding she ruins every relationship she has, she eventually ends up insane and kills herself. Now why in the hell would anyone want to subject themselves to that?
The list goes on and on, story after story, adultery, penury, murder, rape, war, insanity, suicide, and generally boorish behavior. Crime and Punishment, Les Miserables, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Slaughterhouse Five, East of Eden, Heart of Darkness, Vanity Fair, all guaranteed to make you want to eat a bullet. This does not even cover Joyce and Proust which are both incomprehensible and somewhat depressing at the same time.
Not all of the classics are like this, of course some are mostly horribly depressing but have a positive ending like Jane Eyre, or the protagonist does end up dying in the end, but for a good cause like in Lord Jim, or Gone With the Wind (well the cause was communism, but at least the hero thought it was a good cause).
No, think I will just stick with my fantasy and sports books, at least there is always someone in those books I can identify with.
You can read this and other words of wit at my blog (nice pictures too) Impudent Domain