The Classics and Me

When I was a little kid, we had a deck for a special card game called Authors. It was designed for a Go Fish type matching game. There were four cards for each author, each with the name of a different famous work by him or her. It was pretty simple, but even as a kid, I thought it was an odd concept. Except for the Dickens card (which may or may not have had A Christmas Carol), we little kids didn’t know who any of these people were, much less what they had written. We had no idea what the titles on the cards were about. But they did sound like interesting titles, and the information did stick. Play this game with your kids, and they will at least possess certain kinds of general information.

The thing is, I still haven’t read all the works in the card game. Mostly it’s the New Englanders I’ve dissed, even though we covered them extensively in English classes. Sad but true.

1. Louisa May Alcott: I still haven’t completed reading anything by her. My mother did wake me up once in childhood to watch a late night showing of the Katherine Hepburn version of Little Women. I was enjoying it for a while, until main characters started dropping like flies. Criminy! This is not a comfort chick flick story to me, people! I did try her Gothic book, but man, that was dire. Re: Authors, do people actually read those other books?

I did watch the opera version, though. I’m okay with major characters dying of terminal illness in operas.

Possible Replacement: I read Little House on the Prairie books, which were much tougher and didn’t have so much pining over boys, although they had the disadvantage of not being set in the Civil War. I also read Emily Dickinson, which is much more the sort of female New Englander for me.

2. Charles Dickens. I really like A Christmas Carol, and I really like a lot of his side works. But words cannot describe my dislike of all the Dickens books assigned us in school: Oliver Twist, Great Expectations (Yay, South Park version!), and A Tale of Two Cities (which I refused to read). I know Chesterton loved him. I know his many virtues. But unless he’s in comedic or short story or non-fiction mode, we just don’t get along.

3. Washington Irving. I don’t think I’ve even seen Tales of a Traveler, unless over at Project Gutenberg, though I did sorta flip through The Alhambra. His history of Spain is really, really biased, although his framing device has the goodness to reveal this right away. But although I’ve read “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, I can’t say I really like them. I’m not really into horror or horror-comedy as a rule.

4. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Pretty much ditto, although I have more patience for him.

I could go on, but I haven’t found pictures of our Authors set. I’m sure it’s true for most of them, though. (I did find pictures of a Science Fiction Authors set. I’d read most of those. Maybe half of the Mystery Authors.)

The funny thing is, I’ve read and enjoyed any number of classics not assigned in school. I started Shakespeare early, thanks to my parents’ leftover college textbooks, and even studying Romeo and Juliet twice couldn’t make me hate him. I like pretty much all the major and minor poets until after World War I. I really enjoyed Moby Dick — it’s a hallucinatory techno-thriller, written by a natural blogger who loves to digress. I read Boswell’s Life of Johnson until my eyes started to cross. The unabridged Don Quixote was a bit of a slog for a sixth grader, but things do happen that aren’t all despairdespairdespair. And nobody made me sit in English class and discuss What Things Meant.

(Yes, I dislike close reading. No doubt this is some kind of moral failing. I’m okay with discussions of why the author did this instead of something else, but very rarely did we get to discuss books in English class in terms of writing skills and service of the story and Why It Works.)

But most of the books assigned in school are depressing, depressing, depressing. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. (Didn’t make it past the first chapter.) Earth Abides. (One of the top ten worst sf novels ever!!) Stupid Catcher in the Rye. Stupid Stranger in a Strange Land. That dang Bear story by Faulkner. (Also skipped.) To Kill a Mockingbird. (Okay, not stupid or hideous, but not exactly enjoyable.) Crime and Punishment. (At least when it gets into the investigation thriller part, there’s some relief.) We don’t teach schoolkids to enjoy wit and depth; we teach them that literature is about the mute endurance of literary suffering and despair.

Fortunately, I was a voracious reader before, after, and during my English classes, so even the horrors of assigned reading couldn’t convince me that all books were dull, stale, and unprofitable.

My major problem with English classes is that they don’t seem to do what the label says. If we just want kids to familiarize themselves with age-appropriate parts of the canon of literature, why don’t we just do that? Give the kids a big selection of selections to choose from, of various lengths, on various subjects. Encourage them to poke through and read the interesting bits. Don’t forget to have days when people read out loud. Make the kiddies learn poems by heart and recite them, alone or together. If kids have read lots of poems, with no pressure, they won’t be so mystified by reading a certain poem and being asked about what it means.

Then, if we want to teach close reading or other literary analysis skills, why don’t we just do that? “Okay, kids, we’re studying close reading today. Our victim is Story X.” That way, kids won’t hate the story; they’ll just hate the technique. 🙂 Or like the technique, maybe. A lot of people do.

But studying literature, and making kids forget how to read and enjoy in favor of study only — that’s what’s been slowly killing the literature market in this country for the last fifty years.

The other advantage is that this would leave more study time for subjects that really require it, like languages.

UPDATE: A picture of the same Whitman Authors edition that we had! Isn’t it beautiful? Actually, I find that I have read most of this other stuff, except with three of Cooper and a couple of Scott.

I can see where you could definitely use more than one set of authors, though. Or group authors themselves in sets of four, as some variants do. There are a lot of great authors missing.

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10 responses to “The Classics and Me

  1. Inés de Erausquin

    That’s awesome! I didn’t know it still existed — I only saw it mentioned in the picnic scene of “Little Women.” I’ll have to see if I can find a copy of the game, what fun…. And did L.M. Alcott really write a Gothic novel? What was it called?

  2. +JMJ+

    Ines: I believe Alcott’s sensational “lurid thriller” is entitled A Long Fatal Love Chase. (Seriously!)

    Maureen: Coincidentally, Alcott’s characters play a game of Authors in one chapter of Little Women!

    I’ve also never read either Washington Irving or Nathaniel Hawthorne–but in Hawthorne’s case, I keep telling myself that was just because I was prioritising Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, and would eventually get to him.

    As for Charles Dickens . . . I had decent reading experiences with A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist in high school, but Great Expectations in uni was a mixed bag. There’s an article somewhere about voluntary readers of Dickens being over fifty years old, and therefore an endangered species of reader!

    I also hated The Catcher in the Rye the first time I read it. When I had to teach it, I found myself liking it. I doubt my lessons made any sense, though, except for the context-establishing lecture about the Beat poets, because it at least had some history in it.

    The Outsiders I read only this year. I’m not going to nitpick a novel a sixteen-year-old girl wrote . . . but I wouldn’t teach it in English class, either!

    • Re: Authors

      Ha! That’s hilarious! But since the game was invented in their neck of the woods at that time, it’s very fitting. That also explains why it’s always Alcott and never, say, Austen in the deck of cards… authorial kickbacks!

      Re: Hawthorne and Irving —

      Well, you’re not American, so you didn’t really have to hit up American lit as much, or read something by every single one of the transcendentalists for their place in history as well as lit. This is perhaps an advantage. 🙂 I like his short stories in small doses, and his Greek mythology retellings are fun though very self-conscious of being for children. We had to read The Scarlet Letter, which wasn’t on our Authors cards. (Don’t encourage the kiddies to read too far into the adult books!) Irving also has his moments; he’s sort of a newspaper and magazine guy, really.

  3. Joy

    I adore Dickens generally–especially in audiobook form because of his facility with language, but I hate Great Expectations because it has a hero that any thinking person would want to slap and a “heroine” who is an insult to women everywhere.

    I liked Little Women, but the death traumatized me as a child and I never understood Jo’s choice of husband until he was played by Gabriel Byrne in the ’94 movie version.

    I didn’t think her gothic was that bad, just depressing.

    I, of course, enjoy close reading. Especially when you consider that in academia today the choices are deconstruction **shudder** marxism, new historicism, or another ism of your choice.

    I too, wonder why so much literature is so tragic and why we must depress our students so much in order to teach them about the glories of literatue. Gatsby and his green light can kiss my grits.

    Of course, King Lear is a tragedy, but it isn’t depressing somehow.

    I once survived an entire graduate seminar on Thomas Hardy **ick, ick, blech!**

    • Re: close reading

      Well, like a lot of academics in the old days, you’d also done a lot of Bible study in your youth and gotten the close reading bug. 🙂

      Re: Great Expectations

      If you read the novel as being all about the clueless victim of an Evil Overlady and her Evil Apprentice, it makes a lot more sense. (Hence my love of the South Park version.)

  4. I think I remember “Authors” when I was little… I have a vague recollection of cards with authors’ faces on them, for some reason the Alcott card sticks out in my mind.

    Lit classes weren’t any more fun at St Francis. Brit Lit meant Shakespeare (Julius Caesar–which may as well have been in Latin for all we understood of period English) and Dickens (An Extremely Dull Tale of Two Cities). Conan Doyle or Robert Louis Stevenson (I absolutely adore the word portrait he paints in Jeckyll and Hyde) or Orwell or The Hobbit (one semester would not have been enough to really tackle the Ring trilogy) would’ve been infinitely preferable.

    Naturally, American Lit meant O. Henry and I think Washington Irving, although when asked for a two-page paper on an American author I dashed off three and a half on Asimov and earned the only A+ I ever got in an English class. I recall a note in the margin from the teacher that he could see I was a committed reader of Asimov and hadn’t just chosen him for the sake of writing a paper.

    Of course! Give a person something that’s interesting to read, and by thunder, they’ll *read*.

    The unfortunate thing is that in a classroom setting, it’s nearly impossible to have everyone read something they find interesting and be able to have a meaningful classroom discussion on the material they’re covering. I’ll be zipping away through some early Asimov, someone else is merrily ploughing through Whitman, another is on Fitzgerald, another on Steinbeck, another on Wolfe, another on Penn Warren. I’ll be hanged if I can think of a common thread between them all, other than that they’re all in (American) English.

    Maybe it’s time that lit classes start seriously looking outside “the canon”, if they haven’t already–it *has* been thirty years since I last took a literature class. 🙂

    Even so, imagine spending British Lit reading Douglas Adams or Aldous Huxley, or American Lit with Edgar Rice Burroughs or Shel Silverstein.

    • Well, if everyone were reading authors in the same time period, or all adventure authors, etc., you could talk about what kind of stuff each person is encountering, and how authorial approaches differ. How do literary movements react to each other? What were the markets of the day, and how did people consume what was published? You could ask students for the latest thing they’d noticed about X, and then everybody could argue about it. 🙂

      I’m all for giving people background and questions to ask themselves, that sort of thing. I just never wanted to have to write out answers to all those questions. 🙂

      Re: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Wolfe — all very American life and American obsessions-y. I’m not sure how I’d classify early Asimov… “Nightfall” in a way is awfully pessimistic about human nature and the future of democratic societies, but heck, look at when it was written.

      Of course, that’s one of those things I used to really hate — the temptation for teachers to sum things up by pointing to when something was written, the prevailing social forces, the writer’s ideology or ethnic heritage…. Clearly, if those things were entirely the answer, there’d’ve been 40,000 separate versions of The Great Gatsby published by different authors. 🙂 But placing things solidly in history, in the things somebody’d read and liked, set against all the authors somebody didn’t like or was competing against or wanted to prove wrong, and the things they wanted to do — that I can get into.

      Maybe the answer is to do what the English traditionally did — not read quite as many required novels or short stories — while providing really broad reading lists while you’re studying certain areas. Everybody write a short book report on the Transcendentalist short story you picked out, and then everybody argue about the Transcendentalists.

      Re: British Lit — I wouldn’t be surprised if Wells, Huxley, Ballard, and Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange were being taught in English lit classes now. A lot of English sf tended toward the more literary stuff, and seems to have achieved more academic acceptance as just plain literature.

      • That would probably be a great way of contextualizing the stories–of course, that depends on having history classes that are up to snuff, too.

        I’ve always found Asimov to be detached from his times. Foundation was a retelling of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire rather than a commentary on World War II and the early Cold War; ‘Nightfall’ always struck me more as a commentary on the collision between myth and science. He didn’t often go in for real-time social commentary, and I found the few times that he did to be jarring not because I disagreed with the point that he was trying to make but because it felt out of character relative to the rest of his body of work–and his treatments were heavy-handed. “Silly Asses” and “The Winds of Change” particularly come to mind.

        Anyway, I hope you’re right about modern presentations of BritLit, because ours was just hopeless. When we were presented with Dickens and Shakespeare, it was along the lines of “Okay, these are the Big Names that you *have* to know about. Let’s muck in and get through this.” Certainly the teacher didn’t project any sense of being inspired by the traditional heavy hitters of the English language.

        I think there’s a monumental missed opportunity with English and American Lit anyway. When I took German at St Francis, German I and II were straight-up language instruction. German III and IV were German Lit–*in* German. There’s a huge difference between “Ich heiße Paul Schmidt. Wie geht es Ihnen?” and the tortured rhythms of Wolfgang Borchert’s “Draußen vor der Tür” or the strange psychodramas of Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It was like discovering all those weird pieces and parts you’d been assembling over the last couple years had suddenly become a BMW on the Autobahn.

        And we got the works, too–Schiller, Mann, Böll, Hesse, Frisch and Brecht in addition to the ones mentioned above. Somehow or another, we gave Goethe a miss… unless the intention was to whet our appetites and leave a big prize out there for our own discovery.

        English language and composition and English language literature really should be taught in concert somehow. My English lit classes didn’t have the same zing as my German lit–it was taught as a requirement, nothing more, something to survive and not have to deal with later on, we had to muck through this stuff in high school so you do too.

        My English composition classes didn’t look to the masters of the language except in passing and dealt with mechanics. And I never thought for myself that there should be a connection between them–after all, Literature was done by Great Writers; composition was just so you didn’t lose points for grammar on term papers.

        I didn’t discover writing as a joy unto itself until college–and through gaming, not through a class. It was my first realization that there was a counterpart to the BMW on the Autobahn, that maybe I had the tools, and the key, for a Shelby Cobra on I-75.

      • I agree. Ideally, if a middle school/high school has the requirement that its history teachers teach American history one year (or two years now, in Ohio), the English teachers should be teaching American lit in rough concert. If you’re teaching a language, there ought to be at least one tiny poem that uses the vocab and grammar. If you’re teaching poetry and the poem was written as a song, the kids should get to hear people singing “Sumer Is Icumen In” as well as reading it.

  5. +JMJ+

    I got my English Literature degree in a New Zealand university, whose School of English was headed by three erudite immigrants from England . . . and yes, Wells, Huxley and Burgess (though not Ballard) were required reading.

    Then again . . . they were all required reading for the papers of exactly one of those three professors–and no other teacher! Hmmmmm . . .

    Anyway, my two years of intense reading were great where British authors were concerned, but they also explain why I know next to nothing about American Literature! There was one paper just for American Lit, but it was called “Twentieth Century American Poetry and the Beats” so I wasn’t exactly eager to sign up for it! 😛

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