I like to think of myself as well read. I think statistically it must be true. However over the last few months it has come to my attention that there have been large swaths of the American Classics Canon that I have outright ignored or disliked to the point of disregard.
I cared about Poe only so much as it was popular. I tried to like Hemingway to seem interesting. Faulkner bores me to tears. Twain…I just can’t.
I have never read Steinbeck. Gone with the Wind gathers dust on my shelf. Wharton, Cather, Melville all remain a mystery to me. What’s more is they are a mystery I have never been particularly interested in solving.
A few months ago I wrote a post in defense of the classics. I meant what I wrote then. They are important for a variety of reasons. They teach us many lessons. I generally enjoy classics that take me across borders to other cultures. I’m a big fan of Victorian era fiction. I go crazy for Austen and Shakespeare. I enjoy Hugo and Tolstoy. I’m more likely to try Cervantes than most Americans.
The more I think about the deep divide in my classic love the more I think it is due to education. I was raised in an US public schools. I learned US history. I understood the dustbowl without Grapes of Wrath and Slavery without Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Where fiction would make these topics more lively, more real, I felt I already had an understanding of the timeframe, the situation, the overall setting.
Whereas when I read Wuthering Heights I learned about the English Moors. Anna Kareinin gave me insight into Russian life. The Iliad and the Odyssey are backbones of storytelling. I feel like I am experiencing new places and learning new things. I feel like it is an adventure, not a slog through History 101. I can understand the broader history of the world from stories, not just lessons.
As I am not actually a Historian of any era or place I should probably broaden my reading habits. I am starting with Little Women, more out of a desire to watch the new movie while stuck at home than anything else. So far I find it dry and keep comparing it to Pride and Prejudice, mostly due to the abundance of sisters. I will finish, but it won’t be a book that defines my life like it has been for so many of my reader friends. At least I’ll be able to speak intelligently about my favorite March sister going forward. I don’t think it will be Jo.