Reading the Classics…Sometimes

January 2010 009I’m not as well-read as I wish I was.  I’m a once-English major who’s avoided a host of mandatory classics that my Engineering-major friends read for pleasure. I’ve not read through all of Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and countless others, and, frankly, I only want to want to. Sure, I’ve read a good amount of standard fare, enjoying much of it and merely surviving some. Faulkner eluded me, or more likely bored me to the point of poor comprehension. I started Anna Karenina several times, starting at age twelve, and never made it past the first chapter.

I read, voraciously when time allows. The problem is that time rarely allows. Sure, you make time for what matters, but parenting and homeschooling two boys while also wearing the hats of writing instructor, Physician Assistant, church volunteer, foster caregiver for cats, physics instructor, and single homeowner doesn’t leave much time for long afternoons curled up with a book. And by the time I make it to bed, I’m spent. If I make it through a chapter of one of the many books and magazines that live on the empty side of the bed, it’s a miracle. I’m midway through The Radioactive Boy Scout (Ken Silverstein), Japan: True Stories of Life on the Road (ed. Donald George and Amy Carlson), Rosy is My Relative (Gerald Durrell), How to Write a Sentence (Stanley Fish), the latest copies of Scientific American Mind and Brain, Child, and a knitting pattern book. At a chapter or article a night, I’m accumulating more reading material faster than I have a chance of reading it. And I’m not reading the classics.

And neither are my kids. Oh, they’ve read plenty of them as the years have passed, almost always assigned by me or by an online literature instructor. Both boys are willing readers, my younger with a heap of Horrible Histories on the floor near his bed and more in the car, by his seat at the kitchen table, and on the end tables near our couches and chairs. Oh, a book about zombies is in the mix, too. He’s enjoyed the classics he’s read or that I’ve read to him, but he doesn’t seek them out. Well, he plowed through a copy of Beowulf a few years back, and his copy of Lord of the Rings is battered and well-travelled, but he’s not picking up the Hemingway or Dickens on his own.

My older reads, too, although less prolifically and almost always nonfiction. His nose is either in Popular Science or one of his growing number of computer repair books, although some Bill Bryson or other lighter fare will appear at points. He did manage a list of fantasy and science fiction books this last summer, all required by a Coursera class. Some he liked; some he didn’t. None inspired him to explore the genre more. And he’s frank about it — the classics just don’t appeal to him. And for my older, not appealing is a fast track to not retaining. I sympathize.

Like with most subjects, our literature studies have been eclectic. I’ve avoided studies based around comprehension questions and other bottom-of-the-Bloom’s-Taxonomy pyramid activities. As one who struggles with remembering names and the favorite drink of the antagonist in chapter 7, I’ve always hated those questions. And without exception, every literature class I took, from junior high through college, relied heavily on comprehension questions. I stunk at them, losing the joy of the story while trying to guess what the quiz questions would be. It spoiled a fair amount of literature for me, blunting my thirst for more since most of what I associated with classic literature was the tedium tinged with panic as I read for quizzes rather then for story and joy. Thus as a homeschooling parent, I’ve avoided this method of teaching literature.

My younger eagerly laps up literature in his Online G3 classes, where discussion fills class time and meaty, high-on-the-pyramid questions dominate the homework assignments. He talks about reading more on his own, but despite my strewing them in his path, he gravitates to the familiar Horrible Histories or whatever the comfort reading of the season is. He’s a habit-driven child who finds it hard to break routine, even in his reading. I’m comforted that he’s generally interested in literature but not certain how to encourage him to try more on his own.

I’ve had some success wooing a child to read a book himself by reading the first several chapters aloud. Since my younger was born, I’d read to my children, either books in entirety or parts designed to pull them in and launch them on their own. This has slowed down as their bedtimes have moved later and our days have been busier. Classics filled most of our read-aloud selections, but plenty of popular fiction and nonfiction worked their way in. Just this last fall, I read Peter Pan to my younger (somehow I’d even missed that one), following up with the Michael Clay Thompson’s  Literature series, Alice, Peter, and Mole. (Review to follow when we make it through more.) This is one of four in a series available through Royal Fireworks Press with a focus on discussion rather than regurgitation.  Now, he actually doesn’t mind comprehension questions, but I don’t see the point in spending time on them. I’d rather discuss the book and literary techniques, noting connections between it and other books read. Most of all, I want to keep the focus on the discovery about our past, our selves, and the universe available through reading.

I hope that’s happening. I hope the balance we hit by my negligence interrupting my diligence gives them what they need to continue to be lovers of the written word, the sort to never leave the house without access to reading material. I hope they find some classics that speak to them, informing their writing and pushing their standard for what they read just a bit higher. But most of all, I hope they learn to read to learn and continue to feel a deep need to read long works requiring sustained attention. I’ll continue my job — gentle exposure focused on the bigger messages of a book rather than the little details. And maybe I’ll try some of what turned me off so long ago just one more time. After I finish what’s sitting on the empty side of the bed. 

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2 thoughts on “Reading the Classics…Sometimes

  1. Thanks for blogging about this. I too have not read “enough” of the classics. I tried to make every other read be a classic but still struggled.

    • That’s a more ambitious goal than I’ve ever set. I just plod ahead with whatever interests me, feel guilty when asked,”Have you read this?”, mope a bit, then move on.

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