By Brian Kaufman
I asked a writer friend if he’d ever read a particular classic novel. His face puckered up as he admitted, “Yes, I had to read that for school.”
There’s not enough time for all the great books. My friend, author Pat Stoltey, recently told me, “My worst moment when I was a kid was the moment I realized I would not be able to read all the books in the world.” I remember a similar moment in my life.
My father used to take me to the library every Monday. For two years, I exhausted the local library, so we moved on to the Cleveland Public Library. I remember staring at the massive building (currently 11 floors, with more than a million books), amazed and humbled.
Reading those library books was like surfing the Internet. I followed my own threads.
School was another matter.
Without naming titles, let me assure you some books have not disappeared from the world solely because pernicious educators keep them alive.
But unlike my writer friend, school assignments were not always the kiss of death. Let me mention five books that I probably wouldn’t have touched without the inducement of a reading assignment.
Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly, should have been up my alley. I liked horror, and I enjoyed science fiction, and Shelly’s novel gives birth to both genres. I suppose I disliked the movies, which I felt were cartoonish. When I finally read Shelly’s masterwork, I was struck by the astounding thematic depth—the nature of monstrosity, the pursuit of dangerous knowledge, and the inner workings of guilt. Is he novel a psychological study? A subversive, proto-feminist allegory? If you’ve got a critical approach, Shelly has an Easter egg for you. Pure brilliance.
One classic had a significant influence on my horror writing. A rejecting editor commented on my early novel’s prologue (I know, a sin indeed!), noting that I introduced characters who only served as “food for the monster.” That point came home when I read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Capitalism was the fictional monster, and the hero, Jurgis Rudkus, was the prey. The Rudkus character suffered continual indignity though none as dismissive as being absent in the last 50 pages in favor of polemic.
The writer in me appreciated the lesson.
Until a teacher intervened, I’d ignored Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Again, a movie may have been the cause. (The Redford version—I’m very old.) Gatsby was the first book I recall impressing me with its poetic prose.
Along similar lines, I fell in love with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie and Tea Cake’s story seemed so tragic to me! Before she wrote her novel, Hurston traveled the south, collecting folk songs. Learning made me curious, leading (along a twisted route) to my recent book, Sins in Blue.
Finally, I’ll mention Willa Cather’s A Lost Lady, which became my literary introduction to the function of nostalgic imagery (another tool in my author’s toolkit). By now, you have noticed my preference for novels with tight, poetic prose. Cather was a genius.
Trips to the library were all it took for me to read Verne, Wells, Lovecraft, and Poe. But my keeper bookshelf is dominated by books outside my genre reading—often books I was forced to read. I thanked my father for the library trips without acknowledging my teachers for their homework assignments. Situation rectified.
Three Reasons to Read More Classic Literature