Save the Classics–Sort Of

Opinion: the classics don’t need saving.

Classics are, by scholarly definition, books that have enduring qualities. They are books that speak to the human condition, that seek to answer, or at least commiserate, in the questions we’ve all asked ourselves at one point or another.

If a book becomes so incomprehensible that we must file it away in an archive and occasionally force people to read it, we’ve lost the very definition of a work of classic literature. These are books we should look at today and have at least some understanding that they are not merely words on a page, not merely a character completing a series of activities.

We read Shakespeare’s Macbeth because, not only is the writing beautiful, but it gives us an answer to a question: what is the proper order of things? We read Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde because, ultimately, they have endured. And they have endured because they have a thread of humanity within them, a question that we’ve lain awake in bed thinking about, a possibility that we’ve considered in the shower.

So, the classics don’t need saving. But our educational system does.

I say this from a position of wild ignorance, ignoring many of the constraints of the current educational system, but I say it anyway: if we wish to continue to have any recognizable cultural idea of classic literature, we need to teach people how to read. We need to teach them that books are not enjoyable merely because of escapism, merely because they can be entertaining, but because they make us think. Just like a young child must be taught the alphabet to they can begin to learn to read picture books, so must we teach students how to read literature.

They must learn about themes, and alliteration, and cacophony, sure, but they must also learn the bigger why: we read and write books because art is a central part of the human experience. Man may not survive on bread and water alone; humanity may not survive on the scientific method and algebra alone. Learning this, putting it on their hearts, as one of my teachers used to say, is essential to preserving not only literature, but the ideas that it provides.

I say this because I was one of those people who thought that classic literature was mostly useless, literary analysis was for the birds, and a book wasn’t any good if the plot was not instantly appealing. I didn’t see the point of struggling with a book, trying to think about the themes and metaphors that the author used, but this is exactly what it takes to appreciate classic literature.

Inspiration for this post comes from this post and this post, but is otherwise not part of the tag.

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Liebster Award

This is my first Liebster Award (or any award), so many thanks to Blue Jay Books! She nominated me several months ago (in late twenty-seventeen), but I hadn’t gotten a chance to actually write the post until now.

Rules:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you and link to their blog.
  • Answer their eleven questions.
  • Write eleven questions of your own.
  • Nominate eleven bloggers and let them know they’ve been tagged.

The questions I should answer…

What is your favorite book genre?

This is a very hard question for me to answer because I read a lot of different genres, often at the same time (or at least within the same month). In fact, when people ask me what genres I read I usually answer with what I don’t: romance fiction (with some exceptions, mostly in YA) and cookbooks. If I absolutely had to choose a favorite, I would probably have to pick literary fiction, because that’s the genre that most of my favorite books fall into, but it could also be fantasy or science fiction.

What’s the first book you remember reading?

I don’t have a very chronological memory, so that odds that this will be wildly off-base are pretty high, but the first book that I remember “reading” (i.e. my mother read to me) was the namesake of this blog, A Color of His Own. The first book I have a clear memory of reading completely by myself would be The Magic Treehouse series, specifically Sunset of the Sabertooth. The tar pits freaked me out a lot as a child.

Why did you start your blog?

Partially because I’m kind of an attention hog. Mostly because I wanted a partially-curated place to put my writing. My first blogs were written primarily for the first reason, and trust me–you will not write a good, journal-style, personal blog by doing that (or maybe I’m just a bad actor).

What book did you expect to hate but end up loving anyway?

Many–probably most–of the books I’ve had to read for school. Most significantly, I would say Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis.  I found that the writing was very good, and the plot wasn’t some convoluted, hyper-religious gordian’s knot (cough, cough, That Hideous Strength), and the entire book ended up being one of my favorites. And before a Lewis fan sucker-punches me via the internet, I’m not going to claim to be some kind of grand Lewis scholar, so please don’t hurt me.

What are you reading right now?

Right now, I’m reading The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel. It’s a series of academic and personal essays about libraries, talking both about the history of the public library and the author’s own library and how he curated it. So far, I’ve enjoyed it–it is beautifully written, as well as accessible–but I’ve not even finished the first essay (shame on me, I know).

Go to your bookshelf or Goodreads. Choose the first book you see. What’s the book’s title?

I’m not in my room right now, and don’t keep an updated Goodreads account, so the first book in my range of vision is either my commonplace book or The Library at Night.

Would you rather never read again or never write again?

I would rather jump off a bridge.

Open the first book you see and flip to a random page. What’s your favorite line on that page?

“A library is an ever-growing entity; it multiplies seemingly unaided, it reproduces itself by purchase, theft, borrowings, gifts, by suggesting gaps through association, by demanding completion of sorts. Whether in Alexandria, Baghdad or Rome, this expanding mass of words eventually requires systems of classification that allow it space to grow, movable fences that save it from being restricted by the limits of the alphabet or rendered useless by the sheer quantity of items it might hold under a categorical label.” (From The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel)

What’s the first book blog you remember visiting?

The first book blog I remember visiting was either Musings from Neville’s Navel or The Little Engine that Couldn’t. I am fairly certain that I visited them both on the same day at a point in time where they regularly interacted with each other.

If you were going to give a free copy of one book to every person on the planet, what book would you choose?

I would probably give either copies of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck or Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, I doubt that many people would actually read the books–so perhaps I could stipulate that they would be available in a person’s native tongue, with some kind of teacher available as necessary?

What is your favorite part about blogging?

My favorite? Probably getting comments from people. In a close second would be finally hitting “publish” (or, for this year, “schedule”) on a post after several hours of writing, and rewriting, and more rewriting.

The questions I’m asking…

  1. What song do you think best represents you? Not necessarily your favorite song–but one that you would ask somebody to listen to in order to understand you, or an aspect of yourself.
  2. If you were a dragon, what would you hoard?
  3. What book do you think changed your life? This might be in a tangible way, or it might have changed your opinion about something, or simply made you cry.
  4. What blogging practice do you dislike?
  5. What blogging practice do you enjoy?
  6. Did you have imaginary friends as a child? If so, who were your favorites, the most significant, and the strangest?
  7. If you were forced to use only one color of ink (for pens, pencils, etc), what color would you choose? This color would work just like a normal pen or pencil (so, say, a green pencil would work like a normal lead pencil, not a colored pencil), and all pens and pencils would automatically turn that color whenever you wrote with them. It would also include markers; it would not include printer ink.
  8. What is your favorite number? Why?
  9. What would you title your autobiography (or biography)? Why would you select this title? If you would not ever want a book written about you, how did you choose the name of your blog?
  10. Who is your role model? In what ways do you wish for your life to imitate theirs?
  11. Who is your favorite character? Not necessarily the most likable, but a person (or other being) that leapt off the page and into your mind.

I would like to nominate…

  1. Axolotl at The Grumpy Axolotl
  2. Breeny at Breeny’s Books
  3. Sponge at The Story Sponge
  4. Myrthe at Boeken | Books | Bucher
  5. Anonymous at All Things Trivial & Insignificant
  6. And anybody else who wants to join in! ( I really need to follow more blogs…)

To Be An English Teacher

I imagine something like this:

Carefully picking up each of the packets, still warm from their journey through the guts of the printer, you have a brief fantasy of writing each one by hand, copied as if you were a medieval monk. You shove the compulsion into the back of your mind, reminding yourself that you do not have quite so much time, patience, nor desire as to complete such an arduous task.

Nevertheless, you hole-punch the packets and try to ignore the reality that most–perhaps all– will end up torn apart carelessly, lost, ignored, and doodled-upon. You had each of the poems, short stories, and novels carefully selected, from years ago, probably while you were in college and still enamored with the beauty of the world. Perhaps that is a reason that you had to calmly push the excitement out of your voice when you received a nervous phone call from a mother, asking if you would teach this class. Going back to the classroom would return you to a younger, more idealistic self, one that has not been worn down by years of academia.

You knock the papers against the table, clipping them together, taking a moment to stare through each of the holes, perfectly lined up. You pick one copy from the top and put it into the white binder next to you. You will underline and highlight and scrawl in the margins, preparing each work for presentation to a class full of eager students.

You also print out syllabuses, worksheet templates, more packets, an article about keeping a commonplace book, a table of contents organizing information by semesters and quarters, offering headings for each division of time and material. You label tabs, make notes on post-its, thumb through the worn volumes of your favorite books, take deep breaths when you feel yourself becoming too excitable.

Your philosophy is this: these children will have plenty of time to read books like The Scarlet Letter and Romeo and Juliet. You need to give them something else. Not necessarily better, but certainly more obviously beautiful. So you vow to get them to read The Good Earth, Gilead, Till We Have Faces, and Winesburg, Ohio. You will introduce them to marginalia,  new words, and the questions that humans have been asking themselves for centuries.

After many hours of preparation, you arrive to class on the first day, annotated novels tucked away in your messenger bag, next to the folder full of packets that you intend to distribute to your pupils, next to the binder that you carefully assembled out of your ideas and hopes and dreams. You carefully remove the binder, place it on the podium, opened to the first page. You only have a moment before the first teenager files in, and then they all do: sullen and rambunctious, all at once.

You hand out the packets and try not to be too upset when several make faces at the heft they have. It doesn’t feel like much to you, after years of handling biology textbooks that felt like bricks in your bag with their thin pages.

Next down the rows of desks come the syllabuses, then the notebooks you bought them in the hopes that at least a few would begin commonplacing. As you begin to speak and they come to attention–some snapping, some languidly coming into focus like a behemoth river monster floating downstream.

You briefly explain classroom expectations, your bathroom policy, what books and short stories and poems you intend for them to examine and learn to love. You wince again when you mention that you want them to memorize a poem each quarter and the class collectively groans. What’s wrong with committing beautiful words to heart?  you think, doubting yourself for a moment before you decide that it must be because they are young and new to the idea of good literature. They will learn to love it.

The second groan comes when you explain the final. It is not an exam–you always thought that was a bad way to test these skills–but to write a paper analyzing any book of literary merit. Seven page minimum. You feel yourself stepping again toward bitterness, toward a mindset reminiscent of an elderly man mumbling about “today’s youth”. You try to bury it like you did before.

And so the year goes: some things met with silent acceptance, but many punctuated by groans and complaints as if the mere idea of work was comparable to childbirth. Sure, there are one or two students to linger in your classroom, risking tardies, to talk about something they enjoyed, or something they desire to understand, but not very many. You find yourself focusing on the students who did not stay after class.

This is the same for each assignment, each class discussion, even the final paper. You receive at least five papers that are not seven pages with a shrug and a nonchalant excuse. You resist the urge to stand up and shout: This is your education that you are neglecting! This is your life, your future! You hopeless fool!  You remain seated and calm, though. It would not be meet to “freak out”.

When, at the end of the year, the mother who called you up first asks you if you will come back, you politely decline. You have satisfied your dream of becoming an english teacher, and understand that you will never be like the ones that you remember so fondly. They had a strength of character and a hardiness of soul that you will never obtain, so you return to your laboratory bench and the satisfaction that you are doing your own part to create good in the world, even if it is not something quite so formative as teaching.