Revisiting the Classics
Taking a teaching assistantship with Todd Mitchell for a 20th Century Fiction class my first semester of graduate school has taught me more than I’ve probably been teaching myself. I spent the first few weeks as background noise rather than a main act which eventually led to me planning and leading a class period on Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. I opened class with a quiz, with the last question being, “What is the ‘ridiculous’ nickname that Cohn gives to Brett?”
If it’s been awhile, or you haven’t read it at all, the answer is Circe, a Greek sorceress who turns men into swine. I knew Circe came from Greek mythology, somewhere, but I didn’t know its exact pinpoint. So, in an attempt to connect with my students and make it easier for them to understand, I made a Game of Thrones reference.
“I can’t believe you brought up Game of Thrones,” Todd said. “Where does Circe actually come from?”
“The Odyssey,” the class chorused. So that’s where. I was standing in front of a roomful of people much younger than me who knew The Odyssey and I’d managed to make it all the way to graduate school without ever reading it.
My ignorance of this flagship literature wasn’t intentional, at least not consciously. I come from a small town with a limited high school English program. I read the likes of To Kill a Mockingbird with everyone else until I propelled into Advanced Placement English courses. While I toiled away at The Grapes of Wrath the English course below my level did read The Odyssey. I wasn’t aware of its importance in the literary community or that I would run into subtle references of it made by my peers for years to come. By the time I reached college, it was assumed that I’d read it in high school.
Somewhere in the middle of my undergraduate career I decided to culture myself and read all those classic and important books that I never had. When I wasn’t reading for class I snapped up books about apocalypses or wayward ghosts and had an impulse that this must change. I picked up worn copies of both The Odyssey and The Iliad at a local library sale, intent that I would have them read over the summer. And while I managed to breeze through Slaughterhouse-Five, Fahrenheit 451 and several others, Homer is still waiting for that summer to come.
Why do these books hold so much importance? And, more importantly, if I love writing and the novel world so much, why haven’t I read more of them? I have no excuse, no solid answer for why I’ve been putting them off. It’s easy for me to fall into reading books related to the ones I want to write or ones that won’t be appearing in a course syllabus. When I started my first novel, I became heavily interested in what’s being published now, what others successfully wrote and produced and promoted around me. And while it may not seem like it, I do like the classics. I appreciate how they’ve formed the literature world and become the springboard that so many books I love have been inspired by.
Not all those classics or famous books will fit my palate, something I realized when I tried to struggle through a book I felt some quasi pressure to like. But it doesn’t matter if I’m into them or not; they still impacted literature and thousands of people around me. A balance is required; classic books are important as well as what’s being published now, what topics people get excited about. I learn things from these timeless books that I wouldn’t have anywhere else. Plus, the ones I have read most others have too and it’s fascinating to see the same book read millions of times through such different lenses.
I still have many classic books to go, and try to weave them into my reading list on a regular basis. I’m still trying to fill that gap and widen my knowledge of those forefront books that readers tend to intently love or venomously hate. There are some I can’t get myself to commit to; I’ll probably never read Pride and Prejudice (though I have read pieces of the zombie version). There are some books I might always appreciate from afar and soak in the joy they bring to others. But there are so many out there I want to read, and should; I know I must.
Perhaps this summer will belong to The Odyssey.