By Emma Pfanner
I was once at a family dinner with a woman who was complaining about the high school literature course her son was taking. “I’m going to have a word with his teacher,” she said, “the first three books that they read in the class had a main character committing suicide. The first three!” I’ll admit I was startled by this as well. She went on to spout statistics on teenage suicide, and she almost had me convinced that this teacher was some kind of negligent madman. Until I asked her what those three books were.
“Oedipus Rex, Othello, and Brave New World.”
I jumped ship on that conversation.
Here’s what was even more painful about the exchange; this woman is incredibly intelligent. She’s a doctor who somehow found time to home school her biological and adopted children, while making sure that they all studied a musical instrument.
So what would it take to give the classics some appreciation?
If it just took brain cells, why do I keep running into math students and engineers who say “Wow, you read? Like, books? I hate books,” right before they try and fail to explain to me what it is they’re working on right now. (In all honesty, my mind usually tunes it all out and puts in the words, “Magic magic magic.”) So maybe it’s not just brain-power, but a certain type of brain power. Or maybe it’s our education system, or our culture ignoring the importance of literature. I don’t really have the means to speak to those in 600 words or less, so I’ll explain my own theory.
Keeping up on the classics takes what is known in academic circles as a “helluvalotuv” time. Just–mountains of it. This isn’t just time spent reading, it’s time spent engrossed in another world, somebody else’s mind. Even people who study literature get caught up in it. I was once working on a production of Twelfth Night when some one brought up a play by Marlowe. She then asked me, “Have you read any Marlowe, or have just gotten stuck on Shakespeare?” and I realized that that was exactly what I had done. But how could I not have? We were two months in to a production of a play I have read multiple times before, and I was still discovering new facets of it. People spend their lives devoted to studying specific authors or books or times or genres, because that’s exactly what you can do; spend a lifetime studying them. And once you’re done–hey, there were others authors and books and times and genres you could have dedicated the same amount of time to.
So maybe that’s why this brilliant woman had been able to avoid a love of literature. Not because she’s unintelligent or doesn’t want her children to be educated, but because literature is really, really scary. You’ll never be done with it, you’ll never see all of it, and if you’re going to learn another language to read in, why not a third or a fourth?
But that’s also why it’s fantastic, isn’t it?
For more CLUJ blog posts on being a comparative literature major, click here.