You know all those Classics you're supposed to have already read by now...
"...I was thirty-five before I went crazy about Blake, forty before I read Madame Bovary, forty-five before I’d even heard of Céline. Through dumb luck, I read Look Homeward, Angel exactly when I was supposed to..." -Kurt Vonnegut, The Art of Fiction No. 64 - Paris Review
How could I have made it this far in life, with all the writing I've done and with my current employer being a Public Library, having not yet read the 'Great American Novel??' Gasp. (Essentially, most literary-types assess that cliched prize to belong to Melville's Moby Dick).
So they tell me, at least. You have to take the professorial book-pro's word for it, sometimes. There's an ocean of titles foisted upon High School English students in America, institutionalizing a kind of expectation that these are the books and authors one is supposed to have read in order to be considered, essentially: well-read.
Who's to say what we're supposed to have read, by now, (or at some point in our respectively awkward developments into adulthood.) Why can't I read any of these books whenever I damn well please? Be they stigmatized to a high-schooler's cliched syllabus or not, I decided to regiment myself to classics-only reading for the past calendar year.
To regard its first page, its immortal lead sentence, is as equally intimidating as standing at the ocean's shore before shoving off towards a darkening horizon. Once you get your sea-legs and cast aside any notion that you think you already know the whole story of Ishmael, Ahab and the White Whale, then you'll find a beautiful, haunting and harrowing tale told in the most rich language and striking at some pretty profound, soul-stirring revelations.
1984 - George Orwell
The first 30 pages are rough. It's not just that Orwell's employ of language and inherently ominous narrative voice epitomizes -bleak, hopelessness and -nightmare visions as he constructs his future world (conceived back in 1949), but its that his "vision" starts, too swiftly, to feel like deja-vu. Yes, prophetic, yes, overly-wrung out by conspiracy theorists and pundits, yes we all know about Big Brother. But if you read it for the charm of the writer's graceful, ghastly renderings (...and just balance it in measured doses)...you'll come through it fulfilled, (if still perturbed).
Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
For a kid raised on Karloff (or...worse...Mel Brooks)-esque visions of this quintessential horror/supernatural-tale, this was a shocker... The Monster gives long, Shakespearean monologues and exacts a nuanced revenge (by way of terror and malicious mocking) upon his heavy-hearted, sanity-sapped creator for his demented daring.
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee
"...“Grown folks don't have hidin' places” (-Scout)
A tacit exploration of the roots of racism, and how innocence shreds away in the squalls of unjustified nastiness that pollutes the bristling, bustling world of these grown-ups...seen through the eyes of our tween narrator.
Slaughterhouse Five & Bluebeard -by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse was my "first favorite" book "...of all time..." Revisiting books you think you already know (particularly when it's been more than a decade since your last time reading it). So many more lines jump out, fresh contexts simmer from the page.
Slaughterhouse is an artfully irreverent bolt of white-lightning tearing traditional notions of narration asunder in a wonderfully invigorating way... This article is already riddled with cliche, but suffice it to say: Slaughterhouse is, truly, a book like no other... (Should you decide on taking any of my advice, choose this title first...)
Bluebeard, meanwhile, was recommended to me by Dr. Gregory Sumner, who teaches history at U-D Mercy and, being a biographer of Vonnegut's life and his quirky canon of novels and thereby a superior authority on said-writer's influences. Sumner's underdog selection comes from later in Vonnegut's career, an "autobiography" taking us into the world of abstract art. Creation, destruction and mad whimsy of the heart are explored as this 71-year old artist begrudgingly looks back on his strange life.
For myself, having written about "art" or "artists" (or, specifically, rock bands) for so long, I connected to this passage, stirring me to reflect upon the experience of -an-artist- in the modern era...
"...simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world's champions..."
Even if you think you know these stories, even if you're embarrassed to admit you haven't read them yet...it's still best to experience them yourself; to a.) see what all the hubbub's about or b.) revisit something that you were likely mandated to read the first time around or c.) mine its richly rendered narrative voice.
Ferndale Patch thanks Jeff Milo at the Ferndale Public Library for contributing to Patch! Check back soon for more ideas from library staff. Are you looking for recommendations on something specific? Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and we'll pass on your questions to the library.