June 8, 2003

Getting a Post-Graduate Classical Education

Filed under: Art and About Literature — admin @ 3:49 pm

I have a set of 50 Franklin Library Collectors Edition books that my parents gave me as a book-of-the-month club gift about 20 years ago. Tolstoy, Dickens, Brontë, Poe and other greats of western literature are all represented. I’ve read a handful of the titles over the years, but the only Franklin spine I’ve ever cracked is the collection of Poe short stories.

The books are beautiful, and they have added decorative class to domicile after domicile. But they also fill me with tremendous guilt. Several of the titles intrigue me, but not enough to actually open the book to chapter one.

There is a common belief that all writers are avid readers. Not only is this a pervasive cultural myth, but it haunts me personally and professionally. Quite regularly, when I tell people I’m a writer, they assume I’m up on the New York Times Bestseller List, and they ask for advice on something to read. Feeling too embarrassed to give away my secret, I often reach back several months, if not years, to recommend the last book I’ve read. You may be surprised to know that the question “What are you currently reading” is a common job interview query. I’m prepared for it, though, and come ready with an answer. I don’t have to lie. I am usually in the middle of a book — I just haven’t made any progress in the last, say, six months. The Harry Potter books excepted.

I used to be a reader. While growing up, I loved to walk the library aisles carefully selecting the next imaginary adventure. But college quickly killed my desire to read. As a liberal arts major, so many words crossed my eyes every day via required reading that the last placed I turned to for escapist entertainment was the written word. During my seven years of higher education, I eventually became a non-reader. I’m not proud of it — it just happened. I have done some self analysis and determined that because I am an auditory person, I must have burned out the circuits that take in visual information. I know, bad amateur psychology.

Then I interviewed a highly educated UC Berkeley professor and architect for a story I was writing about his new book and he confided that he was also a non-reader. I don’t know how we got on that topic. I certainly didn’t bring it up. But this extremely intelligent, articulate, creative man (I won’t blow his cover by divulging his identity) corroborated my burn-out theory from his college days. I know, bad amateur psychology validation.

Back to my Franklin Library. I always figured that I might fill the holes in my literary repertoire when my kids were assigned the books in school. I would read along with them as a way of enticing myself to get the classics under my belt.

Ironically, my collegiate alma mater lured me back to reading. Last December, Stanford launched a community reading project called Discovering Dickens. This spring, I have been reading weekly installments of Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” The project produced “Great Expectations” in its original, serialized format and sent it to eager readers every Friday for 18 weeks. This was intended to recreate the great expectations of 1860s Londoners who waited impatiently from week to week for their dose of Dickens.

The experiment worked completely. My father-in-law ordered the series, would read the weekly chapters and then start passing them around the family. I read the issues during the 2 a.m. feeding for my newborn and, I kid you not, I actually looked forward to her waking up so I could continue with the story. Each week I anxiously anticipated receiving the new chapters. The baby began sleeping through the night when I was within two riveting chapters of the end. I agonized whether to finish during daylight, but I got two more interrupted nights of sleep shortly thereafter and was glad to have my Dickensian companions.

My interest in reading has been jump started. With literary rejuvenation, I have pulled “David Copperfield” off the shelf, and organized a pecking order of the Franklin Library books. The baby still gets up in the middle of the night every once in awhile, and reading a classic is a welcome alternative to the drivel on late-night television. Maybe this time when I finish the new Harry Potter book, I’ll turn around and find out what “Mutiny on the Bounty” is really all about.

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