Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Literature and me

Note:  This post may offend your literary sensibilities.  If it does, I am sorry for that.  My opinions on certain books and authors should not be construed in any way as a judgement against those who enjoy them.  We all have our individual tastes.  Sometimes they overlap, and sometimes they don't.

So, this past weekend my daughter saw The Great Gatsby in the theater, and totally loved it. Which brought the subject of “literature” up between my wife and me. And during the discussion, I came to a conclusion: I’m not a “literature” guy.

I consider myself reasonably well-read and literate. I can read, comprehend, and define the merits of the “classics” with the best of them. But, I simply don’t enjoy them. Therefore, unless required to for some class, I don’t read them.

In my early college career, I often pondered why we have to read them at all. I never liked Dickens, wasn’t really fond of Twain or Hemingway, and for the longest time I couldn’t understand Shakespeare to save my life. Well, today I still avoid Dickens like the plague, and I haven’t read Twain or Hemingway in years. But I get Shakespeare a bit better now, mainly because I have learned how to read him (though I still don’t really like to, as plays are supposed to be viewed not read, in my opinion).  I can certainly see their literary merits and value.  But, these works just don't do much for me.

So, when discussing literature with anyone who is knowledgeable on the subject, I often find myself on the “unenlightened” end of the conversation. There is a whole laundry list of classics that I have never read, and probably never will: The Great Gatsby, War and Peace, Les Miserables, Moby Dick, to name but a few. Even some of the “adventure” fiction of the past kind of doesn’t do it for me, but I will probably still try to finish them. Books like The Three Musketeers (as well as Dumas' other works) and The Last of the Mohicans. Both of which I have started, but never finished.

I guess when it comes down to it, I’m pretty simple-minded. I don’t like a lot of excessive detail, or the focus being on anything other than the plot and the main characters. I don’t care much for “high brow” literary language, and am kind of turned off by heavy-handed political and social commentary, unless that is the whole purpose of the story.  Even some of the books I have enjoyed have pushed the boundaries in that regard (like Starship Troopers).  Also, if the book has more than 300 pages, it better be a damn exciting read.

For me, “classic” means Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Jack London, and if you want to get really poetic, Beowulf, and the Eddas (though some of them are hard for me to get into as well). I love fantasy and science fiction the most, but a good mystery is always fun.

That is not to say that I shun all "classic" literature.  I really enjoyed Treasure Island, and Orwell's 1984 is one of the most relevant and provocative books ever written.

Generally speaking, when I read fiction (and as a History major, even some non-fiction) I want to hear a story. I want to feel like I am there. That the narrator is relating the story by highlighting the best parts, and keeping me interested. I want action and suspense, and a good dose of danger is always welcome. I want dialogue that I can hear as clear as if I were standing there listening to the conversation. I not only want the characters to be relatable, but the language in which their story is told to be as well. I don’t want to be preached at heavily, or given a lesson (unless that is the point of the book, of course).

In short, I am still 15 years old in some ways, and I have no use for your snobby works of art. Entertain me, or go home.


Keith West said...

It's interesting how two people can say the same thing and have different things in mind. If I'm going to read for pleasure, I had better be entertained. And I'm with you on your list of classic authors such as Howard.

And while I'm not a huge fan of great amounts of description, I love Gatsby, Shakespeare, Dickens, and James Fenimore Cooper. I've read enough of these authors that I understand your reluctance to read them, and I respect your stance on them. So please don't take anything I say here as a criticism of your taste.

There are other writers whose works are considered classic I can't get ten pages into before I want to throw the book against the wall. So I understand where you're coming from. I want a compelling story, and I respect the fact that what is a compelling story for me isn't necessarily a compelling story for you, and vice versa.

Charles Gramlich said...

I can be entertained by a variety of types of works. For example, although Hemingway and Steinbeck aren't page turners, they entertain me in different ways. Generally I'm kind of with you though. To read something older simply for the sake of reading it doesn't seem very productive to me. I can't abide Dickens either in the long form, although I've read some of his short stories.