“Classic’ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”
A note to my 8th grade class:
All of you are supposedly reading a classic book, but what Twain says is true: few of us go thirsty to the well and willingly read the greatest works of literature because…well, just because.
The dutiful among you are simply answering the call of an assignment. Some among you are skimming as much as possible to glean just enough to talk or write intelligently about the book, while the laziest among you are putting off reading as long as possible before I ask you to write something meaningful about what you are reading. And then: thank God for Sparks Notes. You might even get away with it.
But only for a while.
Life has a way of catching up with us in some karma-like way. Nobody I know willingly admits that he or she is a shallow shell of a person masquerading as a carrier of knowledge and wisdom. We need to believe that how we live is not only sustainable, but also healthy and vibrant. But how healthy can we be if our thoughts are only as wild and free as turkeys in a pen? How healthy can we be if the food of our mind is a mush of glutinous starch and sugar? Sooner or later the fat settles in, the muscle fades, and a simple walk down the street feels like an epic journey.
My hope is that whatever you are reading is both exhausting and energizing. I hope you sit down to read and forcefully pry the blinders away from your mind and open yourself to the possibility of a true and profound literary experience. I hope that you are sensing the eternal value of a transient experience. I hope that you are giving a damn and trying to figure out how and why the words you are reading are considered to be classic literature.
The book you are reading is considered a classic not because a coterie of fuddy-duddy English teachers have decided something is deemed to be “required” reading. What you are reading is a classic because the words, plot, and value of the book has been proved time and time again in and through the ravages of time and place. Your book is a mountaineer who has scaled some previously unscalable mountain peak.
You, too, are a mountaineer being led by your efforts to a higher peak than perhaps you have climbed before.
Good books do that. Great books do it over and over and over and over.
At this point you may be tempted to rest in a valley and be satisfied with a more narrow view. My youngest son, Tommy, is working on his 6th grade Explorer Project. His subject is George Mallory, the one who when asked why he climbed the highest mountains, simply said, “Because it’s there.” Mallory died on Mount Everest. He and his partner, Sandy Irvine were last seen in 1924 just 800 feet from the summit. Mallory’s body was found some seventy-five years later. No one knows whether they reached the summit or not.
Keep Mallory’s spirit alive. Read your classic. Keep climbing.
Because it’s there.