Reading great literature for its own sake
James Joyce’s masterpiece “Ulysses” is the subject of The Economist’s most recent “Books, Arts and Culture” column, with a focus being, not surprisingly, on the work’s place in the canon of Western literature.
One of the best points made in the piece is the excuse given by many today about why they’ve never picked up the 750-plus-page book: “(A) complaint with “Ulysses,” or smart books in general, is that they are too long or too dense, or both, and we simply don’t have the time to ‘waste.’”
Yet, as The Economist correctly points out, some of these same folks will also brag of finishing the 4,000-odd pages of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” (i.e., the Game of Thrones books), or of blowing through all four seasons of “Breaking Bad” in a weekend.
Unfortunately, though, at some point in the not too distant past, it became trendy to bray about one’s lack of literary chops.
Whereas even 50 years ago many aspired to read the great works, and, therefore, appear as something other than a half-educated cretin who couldn’t tell Balzac from a baseball box score, today there exists a significant number who are not only unapologetic for their lack of erudition; they, in the fact, revel in their lack of learning.
But the point here isn’t to castigate those who would rather spend their idle time watching “Family Guy” or create an endless loop of “Friends” episodes so that that wacky gang of 20-somethings will always have a place in their homes.
Rather, it’s to point out that literature isn’t an all-or-nothing game. You can read Joyce or Hardy or Tolstoy and still do other things, such as kayak the Ganges, climb Everest, or, knock back beers while watching television.
In addition to reading the classics, you can also enjoy them.
They may take a little more work to fully appreciate, then, say, “The Simpsons,” but reading the classics may actually enable one to enjoy “The Simpsons” more.
Consider: Through “The Simpsons’” 20-plus seasons, the show’s writers have played off the works of many of literature’s greats, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville.
What’s most perplexing about those that brag about never having read a classic is that most of them have never really tried.
Beyond the satisfaction one gets from completing a book of sizeable proportion – and anyone who’s picked up “War and Peace” will tell you there is indeed an inherent sense of accomplishment involved with finishing Tolstoy’s magnum opus – there’s the joy that takes place during the actual reading.
That’s why they’re considered “great reads.”
One of the great pleasures of post-collegiate life for me has been the ability to read scores of classics with full knowledge that I’m doing so only because I want to.
I don’t have to worry about a test, term paper or anything else that’s going to force me to comb over paragraphs and pages for symbolism, foreshadowing and other writing techniques that were the staples of lit class instruction.
In other words, I read what I want, when I want, because I want to. But the important part is simply that I read.
It’s unlikely I will get to even 10 percent of what today are considered the “great books” of literature, but you better believe I’m going to have a great time trying.