Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Classics

Sometime in my pre-adolescent years, my family came into an encyclopedia. I expect it was donated to us because it was hopelessly dated by the heady scientific and technological advances of the mid-80s, but I was enamored. Flopped on the floor of our trailer by the pressboard stereo cabinet, perhaps listening to one of my mother's records, I spent hours turning over one and then another of the volumes that lived on the bottom shelves. In this way I acquired smatterings of knowledge about various subjects, not all of which has deserted me. Mainly, however, I flipped to the back of each volume, in which were synopses of "The Greatest Books Ever Written", consonant with the alphabetical breakdown of each tome. The selection bias was toward the critical darlings of early 20th century American lit, which rendered me the invaluable service of providing the rudiments of plot and cultural reference while sparing me from the necessity of reading reams of passe prose.

In this way I developed a working knowledge of numerous books that I've never actually read. (Of course there were many genuine classics summarized as well, but as I read them in later years the true quality of the book settled in my mental library and uprooted the lesser proxy.) Lists can be a form of nostalgia; here are some of the books I know only through their plot summaries in the back of the encyclopedia.

Sister Carrie
Of Mice and Men
Don Quixote
Enoch Arden
Silas Marner
Portrait of Jenny
God's Little Acre
How Green Was My Valley
Bridge of San Luis Rey*
Tristam Shandy
Elmer Gantry
The Jungle
The Pearl
East of Eden
Grapes of Wrath
Tobacco Road
Ethan Frome
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Lost Horizon
The Good Earth
Of Human Bondage

*I have since read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which I enjoyed well enough, but truth to tell, I remember the capsule plot better.

The plots of the bulk of these works contain matter entirely unsuitable for the ten-year-old reader, but the encyclopedic style was so bland that I read my young way through any number of abductions, affairs, rapes, lynchings, and beatings. Still, that's lit for you. I still recall a few of the line drawings which livened up the otherwise unadorned plots: Olivia trying to seduce Viola; Don Quixote tilting at windmills; the Joads loaded up in their station wagon.

This encyclopedic knowledge of the skeletons of literature stood me in good stead in what passed for my senior year. I was not getting ready for college; our laissez-faire homeschooling of the prior years had left me unsure whether I even had the academic chops to attempt higher education. What did people even read at high school? So I hied me down to the library and consulted the shelf labeled "Classics", and spent that year and the next reading through it.

I wish now that I'd written down everything I read that year, when I had so much time despite working 40 hours once I turned 18. Not every book made the cut; Steppenwolf and Siddhartha didn't look remotely interesting to me. Madame Bovary I remember, and Doctor Zhivago, both of whom I thought to be great fools. The Age of Innocence, Pride and Prejudice, Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. Lord of the Flies, another one I didn't care for. Tess of the D'Ubervilles, Sons and Lovers. The Turn of the Screw. Lolita. The Virginian. Stranger in a Strange Land, which I slogged through in a grim spirit of determination, vowing never to read any more Heinlein.

What I didn't know was that any fool can get into college these days. To my great surprise, I was admitted into the university Honors Program on the strength of the worst essay ever written. My heart sank and my spirits flagged as I pored over the alien Greek titles on the first semester reading list; none of these had been on the library's classics shelf.

First Semester
Homer: Iliad, Odyssey
Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, Eumenides
Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonos, Antigone
Euripides: Medea, Alcestis
Aristotle: Poetics
Herodotus: Histories
Thucydides: Peloponnesian Wars
Aristophanes: Acharnians, Peace, Clouds
Plato: Apology, Crito, Symposium, Republic, Phaedo
Aristotle: Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Politics

Second Semester
Plautus: The Menaechmi, The Haunted House, The Rope
Terence: Woman of Andros, Phormio, The Brothers
Vergil: Aeneid
Plutarch: Parallel Lives: Caesar, Anthony, Cicero, Cato the Younger
Cicero: De Amicitia, Tusculan Disputations
Seneca: Medea, Phaedra, Thyestes
Lucretius: De Rerum Natura
Tacitus: Annals

At this point, my father, previously so mild and deferential to my choice of classical fare, assumed his paternal duty by insisting, with increasing frequency, that I start in on this reading list before fall. Dad, though he's since become a great devotee of Jane Austen, had but a passing acquaintance with the foundational works of Western Culture, but he'd been through four years of college and knew class reading lists. And so, I flung myself onto the battle-hazy plains under the beetling walls of Troy, dimly groping my way through the dust of antiquity under Homer's dactylic guidance. I got no further than Ithaca and the blood-stained palace of the triumphantly repatriated Odysseus before school began. It must have helped: over the four years of Honors, three-quarters of the initial freshman class washed away under the deluge of Great Works, yet I managed to float to the surface, buoyed up Aeschylus and Virgil and Boethius and Dante and Shakepeare and a raft of plots of "The Greatest Books Ever Written".


Banshee said...

A lot of libraries have volumes and volumes of "Masterplots" books, which are whole books full of plot summaries of famous novels.

I seriously envy your university's honors program. Ours was pretty much things I'd already read in high school, albeit with more advanced expectations about writing.

I went to a decent university, but most of my subjects didn't stretch me. But the real problem was that, often, my superficial understanding of really Great Books was mostly illusionary. There's a lot of difference between "The Iliad and the Odyssey are interesting ancient adventure stories with some cool cultural features" and "The Iliad and the Odyssey are smashing you in the head with godlike power and poetry." I really wasn't old enough for a lot of the Great Books, whereas now I am.

JMB said...

Great list! Have you read the Secret History by Donna Tartt?

MrsDarwin said...

JMB, when I met Darwin, he introduced me to the two books he was currently reading (again): Secret History and Brideshead Revisited. And so those books have become intertwined with both our relationship and our early college days. I love Secret History; it's hard to believe that it was Donna Tartt's first novel.

JMB said...

We read it last year in my book group. What none of us could get over is the fact that it hasn't been made a movie. It's got a great plot, great characters, good setting - it's just surprising.

Last time we were in Vermont, I went to Bennington College just to check it out.

MrsDarwin said...

I thought I heard years ago that a movie version was in the works, attached to someone like Gwyneth Paltrow, but she's far too old now.

My favorite line in in the section in which is recounted the hysteria that gripped the campus over a several-day long power outage: "Factions formed. Leaders rose from the chaos."

Darwin and I quote that to each other often.

JMB said...

Young Gwennie could probably have pulled off the creepy girl twin back in her day. So who would you cast now? I think you and Mr. Darwin should write the screenplay. One of my bros has some big Hollywood connections, I can hook you up!

My cast would include:
Daniel Radcliffe
Emily Watson
Kate Mara
James Franco

But I'm old and don't know a lot of young actors...