Back in the olden days when I was homeschooling my boys and in a state of constant anxiety about ruining them, I would read “the classics” during the summer—essentially pre-reading their literature assignments. Some of these were re-reads for me, and some I’d missed, since we moved a lot when I was growing up.
I was looking forward to The Scarlet Letter, in the “missed” pile, because, again, in the olden days, before podcasts and iEverythings, I happened to turn on the radio one day just in time to hear Paul Auster reading excerpts of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s absolutely delightful Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. These letters are from Hawthorne’s American Notebooks, written to his wife while she was away for several weeks and Hawthorne was left to care for his very young son.
I was entranced.
I tracked down the audiobook at the library, and every few years or so I have another listen. Hawthorne’s dry wit, his devotion as a father, and his detailed descriptions of the ordinary moments of their lives are unexpected and deeply moving.
Imagine my surprise when I tried to slog through The Scarlet Letter and just HATED it. So I did an informal poll of my pals, because while I might be old, I can still Internet, and pretty much everyone else hates or hated it, too.
“Boys, we’re not reading this damn thing.” I didn’t want them to be turned off Hawthorne because of that Puritan nightmare.
And reading his other works got me to wondering: Why?
Presumably, there are reasons we remember particular authors, reasons their work is valuable—typically, one imagines, because they themselves were important in shaping our culture or because their work touches on subject matter (Puritans!) that is historically or culturally significant.
I got to wondering how to get at the value without the torture.
So, in the spirit of skinning cats a whole ‘nother way, and, if, say, you, too hated various required readings and think you might want to circle round and try to get a grip on the so-called classics, here are a few commonly-hated books and suggestions for alternatives.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
I mean, I get it that Hawthorne upped the game for American novels and short stories. And I get it that teachers can really dig into the history of the Puritans with Scarlet Letter. And I get it that Hawthorne uses uses nearly every tool in the literary devices toolbox with surgical precision. Handy for teachers. But, whatever. Do check out Twenty Days with Julian and Little Bunny by Papa. There’s a scene in Twenty Days where Hawthorne allows his son to relieve himself—well, I won’t give it away. If fatherly musings don’t interest you (and Twenty Days does end rather abruptly), then try “Wakefield,” a super creepy short story about “marital delinquency,” a fella who disappears for twenty years and then just walks back into his own house. (It’s just begging for a companion, the story told from the perspective of Wakefield’s wife. Someone get on that.)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
A friend of mine found it irksome to read because Hardy would drone on and on, saying-but-not-saying things like: “She had bodacious tatas.” For me, the irritation was simply that we finally met a female character and, dammit. The horror and injustice! So Tess put me off my Hardy feed for twenty years or so. But then one summer I was strolling through a used bookstore and Alan Rickman’s name on a box of CDs caught my eye. Alan Rickman! So I listened to Return of the Native, which, for some, seems like Much Ado About Moors. But Alan Rickman! And it’s so fun to hate that Eustacia Vye. (Even my young son, about ten at the time and who I didn’t think was listening in, loved hating her, too. After a long day of errands, he asked, “Can we go home now? I want to hear Eustacia die…DIE…DIE!” And he gave a little hop at each louder DIE.) Also, the villagers, who function like the Greek Chorus, are as unforgettable as the mice in the movie Babe. For similar-ish reasons, mainly the adorable.
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
I file Steinbeck under “Testosterone Writers,” along with Hemingway, and, may he rest in peace, Philip Roth. My son’s college girlfriend loved Of Mice and Men, but it’s otherwise universally despised amongst my own people. (Here’s a fun synopsis if you’re not familiar.) So what to read instead? I was going to say, “Literally read anything else.” But then I learned that The Grapes of Wrath is a favorite book of one of my favorite people, Doug, who never lets me down, and that there’s a reference to Wrath at the beginning of the move Ladybird, which! horrors! I missed. So I think I may give it a whirl this summer.
A Separate Peace, John Knowles and Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
I get these two confused. They have similarly attractive covers and lots of boy characters and death. I didn’t hate either—heck, I’d remember them if I had—but many of my friends did. I have a distinct memory of stopping in a bookstore in Annapolis, Maryland, on a family vacation. I was about thirteen and was sent to the “young people’s section” to pick a book. I chose Catcher, not knowing anything about it. My stepmother wouldn’t buy it. I can’t remember exactly why, but I remember a wrinkled nose and, in the way that children do, I sensed utter disgust. (She had something against boy coming-of-age books, I think. Then she pointed me to Madeleine L’Engle instead.) Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is on my list this summer for a re-read. I was required to read it in college, but because I was swooning over that boy Stanton in the next row, I merely passed my eyes over all the words without taking in much more than “this is terrific.”
Beloved by Toni Morrison
I was more than a little surprised to hear that some of my friends had read Beloved in classes. (Sylvia Plath was the only female author I read in school.) My friend Amy didn’t really even read much before Beloved, and it’s the book that turned her into a reader. Other friends shared that they were not old enough to process the subject matter—a pretty universal theme in the “hated it” conversation. In high school, Beloved would have wrecked me. I was in my mid-twenties when I read it, and it’s an absolute cathedral of a book. (I read The Bluest Eye in high school, on my own during the summer, after I learned that Morrison grew up literally across the tracks from my stepmother, who was born ten years later.) If you read Beloved in school and hated it, read it again. And then read everything else Toni Morrison has ever written. And then read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which seemed to me like the grandchild of Beloved. Don’t let your bastard English teachers get you down.
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Every time someone tells me they hated Moby-Dick, and I hear that often, I just want to ask: ARE YOU A MONSTER?! The first couple dozen chapters (before they go to sea) filled with homoerotic undertones and a feature a kind of anti-slavery manifesto. My friend Drew, also a fan, would tell you that by “undertones,” we mean “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in four-part harmony. With a Barbara Streisand arrangement. There are plenty of cetology chapters that are skip-able. I don’t even find Ahab very interesting, although, as Nathaniel Philbrick points out in his charming and thoughtful love letter, Why Read Moby-Dick, “…you’ve got to hand it to this castrated, one-legged, fifty-eight-year-old lapsed Quaker; he doesn’t mess around.” And when Ahab shouts across the water to other ships, “HAST SEEN THE WHITE WHALE?”—choice. Also very satisfying, when you lose your keys, to shout the same across the house, to the irritation or amusement of your family. (Mostly irritation.) So if you’re a Moby-hater, traumatized by an early reading, if you get to a point where you’re sufficiently coping with your PTSD, try reading the first page—not the “Etymology,” which is the actual beginning, but the bits that come after “Call me Ishmael.” It’s a riot. The opening scene! Feeling Novemberish and wanting to knock hats off the men in the street! (I once dated a fella simply because he wasn’t just Melville-curious, my litmus test, he’d read and loved Moby-Dick. Which, side note, in retrospect, was not enough.) And if you really, really can’t bring yourself to try it, then have a go with his short story Bartleby the Scrivener. And if you just can’t even with Melville, but you like sea stories, try anything by Andrea Barrett. We especially enjoyed The Voyage of the Narwhal.
I’m not terrific fan of the whole idea of the Western Canon, but a couple years ago I heard Marlon James give a talk about the books that shaped him as a writer. He gently and thoughtfully discussed the need to separate the art from the artist. This consoled me. (Although I still can’t forgive Charles Dickens for his treatment of his wife and children.) The way I’ve come to make some peace with the “classics” quagmire is to read around them or approach sideways.
Why? Why read the dead white dudes? Of course, you don’t have to. But here’s a secret. A wide reading of work that has shaped our culture—*whispering*—helps us to get more jokes.