All of us can probably remember some reading assignment for a high school English class that seemed onerous at the time… if not torturous… if not downright cruel.
Such ponderous tasks typically involved one or more of those so-called “classic” pieces of literature: usually a musty old tome from at least as far back as the 19th century, and likely from some highbrow British author with a name like Dickens, or Brontë, or Austen.
And my own high school English teacher seemed especially sadistic, assigning multiple classics during the year we spent together.
I remember groaning loudly when it was announced that we’d be reading “Wuthering Heights,” certain I would hate every syllable of that depressing saga of those star-crossed lovers out on their soggy old moors. (I yawned theatrically to emphasize my point.)
I got through it, grudgingly, half-heartedly, and with just enough comprehension to scribble out an unenthusiastic book-report, which I handed to said teacher with a disgusted roll of my eyes.
Next came “Middlemarch,” followed by “Pride and Prejudice,” followed by “Vanity Fair.”
It felt like cruel and unusual punishment (especially when the other English class was reading DUNE). I plowed miserably through each of them, complaining all the while to whomever would listen, about what vapidly stale drivel was being forced into me, and at such a precious teenage opportunity cost.
Once out of school, and finished with all such compulsory reading, I vowed never to crack another of those boring old classics ever again.
As is often the case, however, with such brash declarations, Fate would have the last laugh.
I married a young woman who had not only read many of those same novels during her high school career, but had been rather fond of them.
I thus found myself in the delicate position of living with a person who still actually read some of these old English classics by choice… just for “enjoyment.”
I rationalized my dislike for these same works by concluding that such frilly Victorian fare must simply be suited more to the feminine mind and taste. Surely I hadn’t prejudiced myself against time-tested literature, convincing myself I’d hate them, then proceeded to fulfill my own prophecy.
I didn’t like it, but I knew what had to be done. With my young wife’s encouragement, I dug out my old paperback copy of “Wuthering Heights” and plunged in again, venturing, this time, with as objective and open a mind as possible. And, while the opening paragraph still felt a bit stilted and dated, by the time I’d finished even the first chapter, something rather astonishing had happened… I was hooked!
“Wuthering Heights,” it turns out, was that proverbial ‘page-turner’ of a book. So much so, that I found myself looking eagerly forward to bedtime, when I could be reunited, under the warm light of my bedside lamp, with that irascible Heathcliff and the tempestuous Catherine, out there on those misty, mysterious moors.
The surprising reversal of such long held opinions demanded an immediate reevaluation of everything literary, and so I revisited others works from my old high school reading list, loving them all so much that I sought out more of the same: more Brontë, more Austen, nearly all of the works of Dickens, and then on to Thomas Hardy, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and John Steinbeck, and Mark Twain, and more of Dickens, and H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne, and Victor Hugo, and Herman Melville, and Garcia Marquez, and some of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and even a smattering of Shakespeare.
I have my own, personal favorites, of course, but the consistent thread between all of them is the stunning revelation that they are all—each and every one—eminently wonderful and worthwhile.
So completely converted have I become to these classics, that, for the past several years, I’ve kept a list of BOOKS I WILL READ BEFORE I DIE.
And, if you are someone who majored in English literature, or who teaches literature, or even someone who just really loves literature, I will ask you for a recommendation—one single work of classic literature—that I absolutely need to read before I die.
If it’s a book I’ve already read, then I’ll want to talk with you about it.
If, however, it’s a book I’ve yet to read, then I’ll add it to the list.
And I will definitely read it (assuming I live for at least another year), even if your recommendation turns out to be something as ponderous as “War and Peace,” or “Moby Dick.”
In a few more days, I will finish yet another of these recommended classics: Dickens’ “Our Mutual Friend,” (which has become one of my all-time favorites), and then I’ll download the next book on the list: “Ulysses.”
I will never get entirely through this list, since people keep recommending more and more classics to be added. And I’m glad, since it’s been such a rich source of ongoing enjoyment and edification. (Would I even be the same person if I’d never read “Gulliver’s Travels?”)
But, what, you may ask, of that long-suffering high school English teacher of yore, who strove so resolutely to broaden my narrow teenage mind?
She still remembers me from over 40 years ago. How do I know? Because I felt compelled to search out her phone number, and to call her, and apologize, and say, thank you!
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