Open Thread: Classics and Me

Dear World,

I can no longer hold this inside: I've been re-reading some classics lately and been astonishingly disappointed at what feels like very dated literary techniques, particularly when it comes to characterization. It's not that I can't see how these books blazed a trail and laid foundations and whatnot, it's just that I can't read them and enjoy them because I am spoiled with newer, better written books now.

I feel horrible admitting that.

I tried to read Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" last year, having fond memories of the abridged version as a child. I was gobsmacked at how dreadful the writing was in the B&N Classics translation. There is almost no action, and the entire novel seems consumed with proving that no, really, this is totally possible. I don't care. Get on with it. The hired servant they bring along for the trip is a cavalcade of race/nationality fail, given that he's willing to go forth into certain doom even after it becomes clear that his employer is a suicidal stubborn fool, because he needs the money for his family. Pro-tip, Bob: if you die in the center of the earth, your family doesn't get the wages you've been lugging around. And the characters are criminally stupid, doing things like taking months worth of food, but only days worth of water because they're sure to find natural springs! And they climb down a precipice by doubling a rope, sliding down to a ledge, shaking down the rope, and continuing on. How are you going to get back up? Never mind, I don't care. Have a nice death, annoying characters. And lest you think me harsh, this is after the main protagonist forcibly detains and starves his household servants for a week because no one is allowed to eat until he works out the solution to a puzzle. Isn't he charming?

I also tried to re-read Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" last year and while I think it works great as a parody of American values, I also think the reader is being asked to forgive a lot of turgid prose and questionable characterization on the part of the Arthurian characters. I got past that by deciding that they are parodies of the American view of Arthurian characters, but I had to strain my "benefit of the doubt" brain-muscle a few times. Ouch. I do love the concept, though. And the whole "Americans pollute the world because they worship industry at the cost of all other considerations" theme is something that resonates with me. So I guess that one was alright, but I didn't love it.

Now I'm listening to Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and marveling at how apparently it was once considered appropriate narrative technique to "characterize" children by having the parent monologue at the reader about how one boy is reckless and the other boy is plucky for something like thirty minutes worth of spoken reading. Like, really? Just tell me that in one sentence and move on with the story, please, I believe you. Heck, name them that way, since I've already lost track of which one is the reckless one and which one is the plucky one because at the 20-minute monologue mark my brain decided to crawl out of my ears and whimper quietly around my feet.

Bah. I'm giving up and listening to "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters" again instead. So clearly I fail classical appreciation studies. I'm not giving back my degree in English, though.

I had to get that off my chest. Yours,
~ Ana


depizan said...

this is after the main protagonist forcibly detains and starves his household servants for a week because no one is allowed to eat until he works out the solution to a puzzle.

What the everliving fuck!? And we are not now rooting for monsters to eat him and/or rocks to fall on him? Food. Is. Not. Optional. Dickhead.

Starving people is one of my personal oh no you fucking don'ts because I'm one of those people who needs to eat often. As in, if I go much more than four hours without food, I get irritable, headachy, and unable to concentrate. This may have something to do with the fact that I'm very thin. Or, more likely both have a lot to do with my metabolism. I routinely joke that my boss is trying to kill me when she schedules my lunch five hours into my shift. (But we can take two fifteen minute breaks a day, pretty much whenever we feel like, so I can grab a snack in there. If I couldn't, it wouldn't be something I'd joke about, it'd be something I'd demand never fricking happened, unless she wants me to start eating the books.)

Ana Mardoll said...

It's apparently not even the first time!

When our cook wanted to go out to market, or on any other errand, she found the front door locked and the key taken away. Was this done purposely or not? Surely Professor Hardwigg did not intend the old woman and myself to become martyrs to his obstinate will. Were we to be starved to death ? A frightful recollection came to my mind. Once we had fed on bits and scraps for a week while he sorted some curiosities. It gave me the cramp even to think of it !

Isn't he nice? *makes stern face* Ya'll remember this now the next tim eyou think I'm being too nice to Edward Cullen. *laughs*

depizan said...

Well, they could always kill and eat the Professor. *evil grin* In fact, I recommend it.

Ana Mardoll said...

Depizan, you are someone after my own heart. I felt the same way. :D

Arresi said...

Oh, hey, it's not just me with "Connecticut Yankee"! I read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" first, and boy was I disappointed.

I have a horrible time with classic sci-fi, which I hate, since I love playing "spot the allusion."

I really want "Around the World in 80 Days" with less Jules Verne. I'm not sure what the take should be - the modern circumnavigation of the globe would hardly take long enough to make a short story. Possibly a fictionalized account of journalist Nellie Bly and her 79 day trip around the globe? Or a sci-fi version of the story, using Einsteinian relativity instead of date lines for the final trick?

Amaryllis said...

Now I'm listening to Ray Bradbury's "Something Wicked This Way Comes" and marveling at how apparently it was once considered appropriate narrative technique to "characterize" children by having the parent monologue at the reader about how one boy is reckless and the other boy is plucky for something like thirty minutes worth of spoken reading. Like, really? Just tell me that in one sentence and move on with the story, please, I believe you.

Do you find it makes a difference whether you're listening or reading? Because that sounds like the sort of thing that I'd lose track of, or get bored with, if I were being read aloud to; but if I were reading words on a page, I might find it easier to enjoy just for the words without worrying too much about the story. Or I might not, of course, but I'd think it would depend on the style rather than the length of the segment.

As for classics, if I wanted to read a nineteenth-century novel, which I might, I probably wouldn't start with either of those two. Just sayin'. (Hey, I found The American Senator for the Kindle for only $2.99-- a Trollope I haven't read yet! And a doorstopper of a book on paper, but now it can travel in my purse!)

I remember reading the Verne as teenager, after I'd seen some adaptation or other, and struggling thorough it with pretty much the same combination of "This is really boring/WTF?"

Also speaking of "classics," I wandered over to "Mark Reads Lord of the Rings" recently. And I was quite charmed to hear him gush about how this book written, like, sixty years ago, was actually good! Who'd have thought?

Ana Mardoll said...

It seems to vary. I've got a print copy of SWtWC, so I'll try that eventually. But I couldn't have gotten through The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo without the awesome audio book version. That narrator was wonderful.

I was actually surprised how my Mark likes LOTR, though I think he's still in the forest right? I enjoyed those books as a child, and I mean to re-read them (I wish there was a good audio book version of them!) but... there's a LOT of poetry and song-verse in them that Tolkien seems not to have been able to give up and I found those parts... a little tedious. :/

GeniusLemur said...

Before canning and refrigeration, it's pretty standard for townsfolk (I assume they are) to go shopping daily. There are a few long-lasting staples you can lay in a supply of (flour, salt), but only if you have advance notice.

Canning at the time Verne was writing was mostly for military rations. It was too expensive for ordinary folk, and even the well-to-do wouldn't ordinarily have canned stuff on hand.

GeniusLemur said...

It's struck me many times that an awful lot of "Classics" and "Great Literature" are terrible. Objectively terrible. To pick one example (out of about 50,000) from "Moby Dick," any author that spends an entire chapter rambling about whales' tails to no particular point (and gets most of it wrong) is a bad author.

Amaryllis said...

I'm not sure how far Mark's gotten with LotR; I've only read the first few posts. He's actually managing to remind me of what it was like to read those books for the first time-- and I'm old, I first read them when they were reasonably popular among what are now known as geeks, but not nearly as much of a part of the general culture as they are now. It didn't know it was still possible to come to them cold, so to speak.

Tolkien's poetry...well, you know how I feel about poetry, but...I prefer his prose. Some of the shorter verses have moments of lyricism, but those long epic poems...a few good lines here and there, but the general effect is kind of leaden.

On the other hand, one of the Mark Reads comment threads had a link to a Straight Dope thread of "if LotR had been written by someone else," and I was highly amused by the T. S. Eliot "Wasteland" pastiche. In fact, I LOL'd. The Ogden Nash version was pretty good, too.

Amaryllis said...

Um I didn't know. I don't know what It knew or didn't know...clearly, it's time for bed.

Makabit said...

I actually love "A Connecticut Yankee", and I feel that Twain has as much right to do as he likes with Arthurian material as anyone else. And I will love it forever that the damsel he hooks up with calls their child "Hello-Central", believing this to be the name of his lost love.

But yes, sometimes the old stuff is dismally disappointing.

Ana Mardoll said...

Yeah, I think like all things that it's a mileage varies thing. We saw that last week, I think, with the Dickens discussion......

I'm really enamored of 1984, but I'm given to understand that not everyone is....

TheDarkArtist said...

I love the entire LotR mythos, but I skimmed the songs and poetry after like the second one. Maybe that's anathema to a true Tolkien fan, but I couldn't help but think of God telling the Pythons to "GET ON WITH IT" when I was reading those bits. As mentioned above, though, his prose was top notch. I could feel the weight of the One Ring on myself, and I think that's why the movies felt very lackluster to me. It was like watching a pale imitation of something that I felt like I'd personally lived.

I fully agree about the classics, as well. I love classic literature, but sometimes it's just a bit much. I have to read some Stephen King to cleanse my palate, because the prose can just get so bloated and unwieldy. Not that it's not fantastic, and not that Stephen King is literature, but everything in moderation. I feel the same way about death metal.

C. W. Marshall said...

I'm reading Journey to the Center of the Earth to my son (11) right now, and (despite the plodding pace) he's enjoying it. Much more successful, though, have been Treasure Island and Dr Jeckyll.

Part of our boredom with these stories (only part) is that they are known... part of the cultural imprint we've inherited in seeing Bugs Bunny re-enact the elements. But (spoiler alert) when the reader doesn't know that Dr Jeckyll is Mr Hyde... the story is actually kind of gripping. In that way my son is an ideal audience for the story, getting to experience it completely fresh.

So far for me, only Treasure Island really holds up.

chris the cynic said...

My limited experience with audio books is that the fact someone else is setting the pace makes bad books intolerable. I can read Left Behind, I can't listen to an audio book of it. Things that I might speed through because they suck have to be listened to at an agonizingly normal pace when someone else is narrating. That makes it so that you really have no choice but to take notice of every flaw as it happens and the effect is downright painful.

Of course, this is a Left Behind book I'm talking about.

Ana Mardoll said...

Oooh, I love Treasure Island. Good book. I find it interesting, though, that the first mate is always used in the movies as a very upstanding man who was eliminated by the pirates as a Moral Event Horizon -- iirc, in the book, he's a drunk man who may or may not have been pushed or fallen overboard, but not a huge loss to the Good Guys. Interesting use of an adaptation doing better than the source.

@Chris, yeah, I kind of have that problem as well. I usually only like an audio book AFTER I've read the source material once and at that point I'm ready to 'savor' it instead of champing to get to the end.

Launcifer said...

See, I respectully disagree about Melville - and I say this despite the fact that Moby Dick is the only book I've never been able to finish. I think that it's a book that's been mis-characterised for decades, possibly from the very beginning. I don't think Melville set out to write a story per se: I think that was the means he chose to write one half of the book he was actually trying to write, concerning whaling, whalers and whlaing communities. To do that, he had to talk about whales and their bology - which I imagine was an under-researched topic at the time in which he was writing. Given this, I can well believe that the lack of a "point" to some of the chapters discussing whales came about because, actually, Melville was giving his audience new information at the time and it's only later, with the advent of submersibles and greater levels of scholarship that it seems "pointless". That said, I may be waffling randomly ;).

Also, since Ana linked to Kit's first line deconstructions, I love the first line of Moby Dick. Not so much the drum solo, though.

EdinburghEye said...

I like "Moby Dick". Odd, because I cannot bear that other rambling 19th-century author Charles Dickens. But somehow when Melville rambles off I feel like settling back and pouring him another and nursing my own glass and listening some more to that slightly dipsy and unfocussed voice, dead for so long, that assumes that I must be as keen as he is to know all about whales and to hear this story.

depizan said...

Audio books can sometimes save books that are well (or at least entertainingly) written, but which are unreadable for other reason. When I was a data entry temp, I listened to books on tape while working (I wasn't, technically, supposed to be doing that, though listening to music was allowed, but damn, the job is too boring to do any other way.). I listened to several of Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody books that way - though I find them unreadable because I can't stand being in the head of someone I don't like. The audio version gave enough distance that I could enjoy the stories without being annoyed the whole time. Similarly, I listened to several romance novels I'd have flung aside in disgust if I'd been reading them because the objectionable parts zipped by fast enough for me to just fume slightly while typing.

Granted, I wasn't just listening to the books. That could also have made a difference.

Nora said...

I agree that knowing what the connection is between Jekyll and Hyde makes a difference in reading the book, but I don't think it makes that much of a difference, and that's what surprised me most when I first read the book. The way it's structured, the puzzle within a puzzle narrative, puts you in the position of the characters who really don't know what's going on, and even with your superior knowledge, you feel for them and even -- and to me this was the most amazing thing about the book -- by the end of Jekyll's narrative, when you realize that the servants have been hearing HYDE weeping in the closed room, you feel real pity for Hyde as well as for Jekyll.

When high school kids have a reading list for the summer and are looking for the shortest book on the list, I often recommend Jekyll and Hyde. It's very short indeed, but the fractured narrative is, in my opinion, brilliantly done.

Deird said...

I got through LOTR by skipping ahead two pages every time a poem started, and skipping ahead FIVE pages every time he said "Keldor was of the Crythian race. Now, the Crythians began sixteen centuries ago, when..."

Ben said...

I think LotR is best described as a good start. It has all the pieces of a good high fantasy, but later works tend to be much better, because (I think), they can look at LotR and say, "ooh! I can do this, but better!" Maybe I feel this way because I care a lot about setting, which was one thing LotR didn't really get into. (Sillmarilion did, and I loved it.) That said, a character like Ghan-buri-Ghan* is a rare thing, and gives a lot of depth to a world that might not have had it.

I would recommend Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn as a good example of the phenomenon.

*Ghan is proof that the Numenor are not just superduperubergoodmen; they are the second race of men to dominate this area and DO NOT know everything about it. Ghan's people know better, but lack both the power and corruptibility of the Numenor.

Timothy (TRiG) said...

Now I'm feeling weird for enjoying Tolkien's poetry. Well, I enjoy it at least as much as his prose, and feel it's integral to the narrative.

We went on a lot of long car drives as children. Our family holidays were camping and hillwalking in the west of Ireland, or visiting relatives in the UK (a long drive, with a ferry crossing), and we'd always listen to audiobooks while in the car. We listened to My Greengage Summer while travelling to my granddad's funeral. We listened several times to Kerry Shale reading Wild Freedom, by Max Brand, and to Ian Carmichael reading Three Men in a Boat, by Kerry Shale.

I've never listened to audiobooks in any other context. Listening like that is good. It kept us quiet as kids, and it gave the family something to talk about. We'd heard the book together; we'd laughed at it together (especially in the case of Three Men in a Boat, which is remarkably fresh for its age), and now we could discuss it together. So one of the tasks in the week before a holiday was to pop around to the library and pick up some audiobooks.

I don't drive myself. I walk to work, and travel to holidays on a train, where I can read. If I was making long bus trips (I find it harder to read on a bus), I might invest in an MP3-player. (Actually, MP3 is patented, so I might invest in an Ogg Vorbis player, but MP3s are generally easier to get hold of, and I think the patents aren't valid in Europe. Actually, for the human voice Ogg Speex is the better format: it's a much smaller file size. I don't know if there are any players out there which can handle Speex.)


EdinburghEye said...

Ben: It has all the pieces of a good high fantasy, but later works tend to be much better, because (I think), they can look at LotR and say, "ooh! I can do this, but better!"

Oddly enough, I tend to feel exactly the reverse...

Fantasy of manners I like - but most high fantasy I've read reads like the author thought "Ooh! I can do this, but better!" and was wrong.

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