Classic Remarks is a meme hosted at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Founded and run by Briana and Krysta, Pages Unbound is one of my absolute favorite sites. So I always love when I can throw my two cents in on a Classic Remarks discussion. So, dear readers, let’s get the conversation rolling!
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO SOMEONE HESITANT TO READ CLASSICS?
This seems like it should be easy. Right? Just give it a try. I mean, there are so many different classics! Just find one that sounds interesting (or maybe talk to friends for advice (or seek the internet for counsel (or all of the above))) and try it out. What have you got to lose? But, if it were that easy, I think a lot more people would be casually reading the classics. No, I think (to speak in unfair generalizations) we tend to hesitate for two main reasons.
First, reading the classics seems intimidating. They’re old. The language is dense. The story will be dry. Why waste time on something I won’t comprehend when so many exciting new stories are published every year? Second, we tend to dig our heels in once we’ve decided we won’t like something. Case in point: I once made a very principled stand while in line for snacks at the movies, based solely on anecdotal evidence from my friend Kelly, that I wouldn’t like caramel M&M’s. I refused to buy them. I refused to try them. What was the point? I won’t like them. I dug my heels in (where they remain dug in, to this day) ready to die on that hill. We’re like this with so many things! Once we’ve made our minds up, we won’t even consider the contrary. So, if we’ve already “decided” the classics aren’t for us, it can be an all but impossible feat for anyone to convince us otherwise.
But there have been SO MANY times in my life (caramel M&M’s notwithstanding) where I’ve been adamant I’d never do something only to eventually end up doing and enjoying it anyway. In fact, the more I tend to say I’ll hate something, the more I often find myself enjoying it. It’s annoying. Then I have to eat those words! So I’ve learned (mostly) to just stop speaking so definitively. So if someone were hesitant to read the classics because they were sure classics weren’t for them, I’d remind them how with absolute certainty I once said:
1) I’d never use social media.
Oh my gosh this was FOUNDATIONAL TO THE VERY CORE OF MY BEING. I hated social media. I hated what it did to people. I hated what it did to our culture. It was for raging narcissists seeking to forever live within an echo chamber supporting their p.o.v. and fueling their delusions of grandeur. I guess I still believe a lot of that…but you can also find me on Twitter, here! Feel free to follow! When Kalie and I began dating, she joked people would think she invented a boyfriend if she couldn’t tag me in photos. So, with grave reluctance, I joined Facebook. That night I woke up in a cold sweat, heart hammering in my chest, unable to breathe. I had a legit panic attack – that’s how much I hated social media. So I deleted the account. But then I reactivated it. And then I joined Twitter. And even though Kalie and I have moved from boyfriend/girlfriend to best friends (entering the “Jerry and Elaine” stage of our relationship), the social media accounts remain. And I do (sometimes) enjoy my time on them! I’ve met and/or maintained relationships with so many wonderful people which I wouldn’t’ve been able to do otherwise.
2) I’d never text.
Ugh, this one’s even worse than social media. Back in my non-smartphone days – my “caveman phone” days, as my students lovingly referred to it – I used to charge people a quarter for sending me a text. The twenty-five cents was a) because I didn’t have unlimited texting and b) to compensate me for my emotional pain and angst over having to deal with their dumb text. Now I text all the time. Like just all the time and I was so vocal about hating it I am STILL dealing with people harassing me for caving ten years after the fact! People feel, fairly given how vehemently I judged texting and texters, it’s still valid grounds to harangue me. As my cousin Faith once said, in regard to both my texting and my social media use, “Michael, the friction between your stated beliefs and your actions will keep us all warm through a long, cold winter.” Ouch. But well played Faith, well played.
3) I’d never cut my hair.
I’d always had long hair – shaggy hair, at least. By middle school it was long enough to pull into a ponytail. And all through high school and college I was always known as “the guy with really long hair.” At it’s longest, it was hitting my shoulder blades. It was an even more foundational part of my identity than the social media thing. I was completely comfortable with my long hair, hippie lifestyle thank you very much. It was me. Then this happened.
After ages (like ages and ages (and ages)) of debating buzzing all my hair off, I just did it. And I loved it. Honestly, having your head shaved is the best feeling ever. It was the single greatest haircut I’ve ever had and watching all that hair come off (even after they’d cut off the ponytail) was so fun! Plus, the only feeling better than the vibrating head massage of hair clippers is running your hands over your super soft, freshly buzzed hair. Since then I’ve grown it back out and chopped it all off several times, always enjoying a variety of hairstyles along the way. Without even realizing it, I went from the being identified as the guy who always had long hair to the guy who was always changing his hair. It’s much more fun this way :).
4) I’d never chaperone high schoolers in Europe, even if the trip was free.
Years ago my friend Carly did her student teaching in England. She was over there for four months and I took a trip out to visit her for two amazing weeks. It was brilliant and, honestly, had I walked past any place hiring a youth minister and/or theology teacher, I’d’ve never come back. We were having lunch in London one day when we saw a high school group on a trip. I told Carly, as much as I was loving our time together in Europe and as incredible as a free trip would be, no trip to Europe – no trip anywhere – was worth the responsibility of keeping a bunch of squirrely high schoolers alive in another country. Nope. No thank you. Hard pass. Then 2017 rolled around and, as it was our turn to do the school’s Europe trip over spring break, I was boarding the plane alongside Hannah, Matthew, and the rest of the theology department to take 50+ high schoolers and a few parents to Italy for a week. We had so much fun! And we didn’t lose anyone! And I will absolutely be excited to saddle up alongside them once more when it’s our turn for the Europe trip in 2024. Boo yah!
5) I’d never watch Doctor Who.
I’ve always loved pop culture – books, movies, music, TV shows, the occasional play. You name it, I’m game. But Doctor Who was this glaring hole in my pop culture knowledge. It was FIFTY YEARS of shows! Who has that kind of time?? That’s like the most intimidating thing to jump into ever! Nope, I was fine not knowing what that blue phonebooth thing was. But then I started working with Theresa. And then we became best friends. And then we started talking about all our shared nerdy passions. And then I realized she was a Doctor Who fan. So, with some hesitation, I finally decided to give it a try. Why not add one more thing we can banter about during prep periods, right? And now it’s my all-time favorite show! It’s just no contest. In fact, if you’ve been a regular reader of this blog for the past few years this one may surprise you as I often write about Doctor Who. But there was a time I could never imagine starting this show. Now I can’t imagine life without it!
So, I’m sorry but if I was able to end up being completely wrong on all those things I was so absolutely certain of and if I could end up enjoying social media, texting, having a buzzcut, taking a bunch of minors to Europe with the responsibility to keep them alive, and learning what the heck a TARDIS and sonic screwdriver are, there is NO WAY you can be certain you won’t enjoy reading classic novels! So stop digging your heels in and just try it. That way you may well find a whole slew of new books to love and almost as (or just as?) important, it saves you from having to eat all those words. Trust me, it’s better that way.
And sure, the classics may seem intimidating – dense, old, odd language, themes and characters and events you can’t connect with, etc. and so on. But, as the aforementioned examples make clear (and I love whenever I can use “aforementioned”!!!), you have no way of knowing that’s what you’ll think of a classic text. Classics become classic, in part, because they have enduring themes. So, if you open yourself to the experience, I guarantee you’ll find something to connect to. Also, if we’re mindful, we see we fill our lives with “classics” in a more contemporary sense all the time! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road album contains all that is magical and mystical and sexual and redemptive about life…even though it came out in 1975, seven years before I’d be living in let alone move out of my mom’s uterus. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope remains one of my all time favorite films…even though it was released (just as Star Wars) in 1977. I’ve read Spider-Man’s classic comics, reprinted in all sorts of ways…despite Stan Lee creating him in 1962. You see where this is going.
So we’re often comfortable with “pop culture classics,” even if we steer away from literary classics. And while I grant it’s an imperfect analogy, it illustrates things from before our time can still speak to us. In fact, as is the case for me with Spider-Man, Thunder Road, and A New Hope, things from before our time can find themselves counted amongst our favorite things ever! We just don’t think as often of “pop culture classics” being before our time because of the “pop” part of popular culture. And while it is so fun to be as fully anchored in and aware of pop culture as you can be (I get it; I teach classes on Star Wars, comic books, and one on pop culture and theology in general), you don’t want to be limited to pop culture alone. Then you end up like John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) and Ted (Seth McFarlane). And while part of me can’t believe I’m about to invoke a scene from Ted 2 to help make an argument for why people should try reading the classics, I’m a complex individual and here we are.
Ahahahahahahaha, I die every time I see this scene. But you don’t want to be like John and Ted! They’re idiots! That’s where the humor comes from! Their characters are a couple of crass, brazen, self-involved guys (who can be tools sometimes, too). And if we aren’t even willing to try to expand our cultural references, we’ll end up like them. And as hilarious as it is to see them debating “‘Fuck’ Scott Fitzgerald” with Sam (Amanda Seyfried), I wouldn’t want to be the one advocating that point of view. I’m happy I know who Francis Scott Fitzgerald is and I’m happy I know The Great Gatsby wasn’t written by Judy Bloom or Hitler.
To try reading the classics isn’t to deny or turn your back on what you love. It’s just another way to expand the circle of what you love! And, worst case scenario, even if you hate the book and/or don’t finish it, you’re still better off than John and Ted and there are plenty of other classics to try. You’ll find something you love if you’re open to it! Then you’ll be living your best life. Your cultural references can include Hamlet, Achilles, and Dorian Grey as well as Samuel L. Jackson, Rocky, and Clubber Lang. Just not caramel M&Ms. Never caramel M&Ms. And I’m sure there’s no way speaking so definitively will ever come back to haunt me…
Now you should go over to Pages Unbound and read Krysta’s advice for readers afraid to try the classics! If you’d like to participate in a Classic Remarks yourself sometime – and you should! it’s fun! – here’s a handy link to all the topics clear through the end of the year (something I’d never be able to plan that far in advance myself but something I love that they’ve done 🙂 ).