How literature can improve your life.
Reading classics can be a strain, it’s true. We might blame the ever-changing nature of language, or our own impatient eyes which are spoiled and half-closed to writing styles of the past (the likes of which, inspired in part by a system that paid by the word, often feature ultra-formal phrasing and page-long sentences).
Storytelling has changed, too. Over time, formal literary theory and experimentation have given way to the contemporary style to which we’ve become accustomed — the palpable tension of being plunked into the middle of a scene, the stories themselves carefully orchestrated to synchronize character, plot, and theme. For the most part, contemporary readers can take a close first-or-third-person account for granted.
For readers of classic novels, however, there’s often a remote, omniscient voice to contend with, or epistolary and other secondhand methods of storytelling. For example: In the case of the latter, Robinson Crusoe keeps a diary chronicling his days on the Island of Despair; Robert Walton writes a series of letters to his sister, recounting the story of Victor Frankenstein and his monster; Ishmael, a character we know little of, feeds us the tale of Captain Ahab’s lunacy.
From where we stand now, reading classic books is akin to squinting at shapes by candlelight — nothing like the clear window of contemporary fiction we see through today.
Nevertheless, classics are worth reading precisely for their difficulty, precisely because they require so much of us. As with any difficult task, persistence, with its resulting personal alchemy, is one of the necessary steps along the path to greater understanding.
As for the ghouls we call by name — loneliness, insecurity, and anxiety, all of which can spin off into a host of psychological dependencies — we do well to search these narratives, if not for curative purposes, at least for comfort and illumination.
Whatever the struggle, there is no great book we won’t find bits of ourselves in. And while this might be true of all books to varying degrees, it’s the classics from the late modern period — the “stem” of contemporary culture — that give us a good shot at reaching coherent conclusions about ourselves and the larger culture we’re embedded in.
Consider what it means to know the box-office hit “Castaway” starring Tom Hanks, along with the proliferation of reality-TV shows about survival, are direct descendants of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 “travelogue,” Robinson Crusoe. (To say nothing of the many movies and shows also inspired by the novel in previous generations.)
This genealogy is a cheat-sheet for the preoccupations of Western culture: Crusoe’s radical independence is what we most admire and most fear — hence its replication in popular culture for nearly three centuries.
In Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic masterpiece, Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein’s unchecked ambition reflects the bleak horror of exalting science at the cost of the humanities. And it’s not only a matter of us recognizing the many Victor Frankensteins we meet along the way.
It’s that we begin to sense the universal human compulsion to take what is ugly and monstrous within, patch it together, and project it outward into the community, where it wreaks havoc and moves beyond our control.
There are fun, nerdy puzzles, too, particularly when comparing books. In Moby-Dick, did Herman Melville name his characters to telegraph an admiration for Robinson Crusoe? In one of Crusoe’s journeys, he meets a sailor named Ismael, nicknamed “Moley,” which sounds suspiciously close to “Moby.”
We certainly know Melville read and loved literature, as he dedicated Moby-Dick to Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter. In Shelley’s Frankenstein, young Victor is castigated by his professor for reading out-of-date theories: “Good God! In what desert island have you lived?” It’s worth noting that Shelley’s little nod to Robinson Crusoe is an insult that survives in the English language to this day.
If I’ve convinced you of the necessity for reading, interpreting, and applying the classics, then I hope you’ll accompany me as I read and consider a different one each month, starting with Robinson Crusoe. My hope is for us to approach these stories as sacred texts, with all the humility and wonder we can bring to bear, and cultivate a keen instinct for meaning. An attempt to open our eyes to the wisdom that’s been laid before us.
Dorothy Reno is a senior editor and columnist at the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her short fiction has been published by Prairie Fire, FREEFALL, and Red Tuque Books. She lives in Tbilisi, (former republic of) Georgia. She would love to hear your thoughts on the classics. Tweet to her at @plotwrite or respond in the comments section below.