Monday, 20 October 2008
Wrestling with the Classics
Long, long ago, I was an English Lit major. I actually enjoyed reading classics. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I pursued part of a Master's degree doing the same thing. I think it's because I was in an environment where most of the people around me also enjoyed reading mouldie oldies, and got a kick out of discussing plot, character, theme, setting and historical significance until they were blue in the face. I think I "got" the books back then, too - at least, my essays scored high marks, so I must have been doing something right. I was passionate about Bronte, mad about Dickens, and flushed rosy red at the sight of an Austen.
It was like reminiscing with old friends the day I unpacked all my books and set them artfully on the built-in bookcases in our new living room. Why, there was Wilkie Collins and his "Woman in White!" And there was my antique illustrated edition of "Wuthering Heights!" And so THAT'S where "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" had gotten to! Oh, they smelled good, just like classics should: a little musty, a little damp - like library books, except better. I wanted to spread them on the floor and roll around in them a little, but was scared D might catch me.
After the initial joyful reunion was over, I went back to reading un-classic books picked up at the airport or library. My classics would always be there - meanwhile, there were Lionel Shriver and Andrew Pyper and Xiaolu Guo to devour. It was only last month, when I ran out of reading material, that I meandered back to my shelves and plucked a dog-eared classic that I only vaguely remembered reading: "Mansfield Park," by Jane Austen.
Well, guess what? After a mere 17 years since graduating in Honours English, it appears that I no longer have a taste for the classics. I HATED Mansfield Park; I alternated between wanting to shake and pinch the heroine Fanny Price for being such a flimsy excuse for a woman. I wanted to smack Edmund for his priggish condescension. It served them exactly right to get married to each other in the end. Ugh.
Perhaps reading all sorts of modern trash has spoiled the finer nuances of classic literature for me. Or perhaps I just picked up a bad Austen book, if there is such a thing. Or, quite possibly, I'm dumber than I used to be and simply can't appreciate good lit when I read it anymore. I used to love it so - and now I'm afraid to pick up another volume in case I loathe it too.
It's not a good feeling to see an old friend staring at you from the shelves and feel too scared to say hello again. Maybe I'll be more open to the Classics when the snow flies and I'm trapped indoors. I can pretend I'm sitting in a drawing room before an open fire whilst the wild wind whips over the moors. Let's just hope I don't throw the book into the flames!