A belated Classic Books meme

August 7, 2008

You know, I was so happy that Emily tagged me, and then, I never contributed. But I have kept thinking about it, so here goes. And the meme is:

1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

1. You know, I honestly don’t remember being forced to read a lot of classics… my teachers tended to focus on grammar in class and assign book reports, which meant I got to pick most of my reading material. By the time I was in upper high school, and I had moved out of public school and into a school where you got to pick your English classes on a semester basis, so I kind of got to pick the reading there, too. But the best book I read for a book report was Jane Eyre. That was sixth grade, and it was slow going, but I read it with a dictionary right next to me and basically never struggled with a vocab quiz ever again. It remains one of my favorite books. I remember my surprise at realizing, underneath the diction that was initially very challenging, that it was a story about a girl I could relate to. I was hooked. Obviously there were a lot of cultural/gender issues that I was oblivious too at the time, but I was totally swept away and never scared of fancy words again.

Moby Dick is a very close second here.

2. My worst memory of a classic is probably Henry IV (part… I don’t remember). There’s something about me and Shakespeare histories that just do not mix. I find them very hard to absorb, and consequently I got an abysmal grade on the final for that book. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, though, I was just bad at it.

3. The Iliad. Preferably, no one should be made to read it in high school, but everyone should have to read it once  every year in college. I ended up doing that (as an English major and Greek minor, not surprising), and my relationship to it changed dramatically as I grew older. I think you read the Iliad one way as a very young person and another way as you  grow less young. The first time you read it, it’s all lists of names and gory battle wounds, but as you get older, it changes. Before my junior year, I much preferred the Odyssey. The Iliad was too violent. But then junior year, when I was studying abroad in England, two things happened: my grandmother (who was essentially my second parent, as my father did not live with us when I was a kid) died suddenly, and the Iraq war started. During that semester, I was in a Greek class devoted to reading the 24th (aka last) book of the Iliad. I had no idea when I signed up for the class that it was going to be so timely for me. But literally, as the first bombers were flying over Iraq, I was translating some of the most gut-wrenching words on the futility of war ever composed. And as I battled numbly through the cold days just after losing my grandmother, I was also reading some of the deepest expressions of loss. I don’t know what I would have done without that work to do and without those words. I think once you’ve had a couple of experiences like those, the Iliad isn’t just a book, it’s the book. It’s the most elemental narrative of the human experience I know. And in my dream educational world, it would be unavoidable for anyone who wanted to call herself educated. Bonus points if you can recite the last line: And so he was buried, Hector, breaker of horses.

4. Drawing a blank. But I will take this opportunity to state that I firmly oppose any eventual nomination of Ian McEwan to the status of classic writer.

5. I like Emily’s discussion. Other than what she said, it seems to be a mystery, but I do know that if your book is going to be a classic that’s around a long, long time, it helps if there are numerous copies of it to begin with. Or if people wrap mummies in pages of your writing.

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