Because I entered my high school years in the early 1970’s, when education was going through its “progressive phase”, my literary education was what most people would consider to be subpar. Instead of spending our language arts period studying the works of Shakephere or Dickens, you’d likely find us dissecting the latest rock and roll lyrics for hidden meanings. More often than not, we students were a lot more savvy than our teachers when it came to popular music. I remember one class period where, after listening to Neil Young’s Needle and the Damage Done, the teacher popped up out of her seat and brightly said “Well, it sounds to me like this artist is writing about a lost relationship!” All the heads in the room snapped to attention at this obviously blatant teacher error.
“Yeah, his lost relationship with SMACK.” said one of boys, whose long hair stamped him as a hippie and therefore in the know about such things.
“Drugs? Oh I don’t think so” the instructor said doubtfully.
But we knew better. We didn’t know anything about Milton or Dante or Faust, but we definitely knew rock lyrics. Besides, we’d all seen Panic in Needle Park by then, with its graphic depiction of New York City heroin addicts, so we knew the scene, man. Even if we were teenage hippie posers.
My very first introduction to fine literature, though, was well before I started high school. In 1968, Franco Zeffrelli’s film version of Romeo and Juliet came to town. The college-age sister of my best friend took us to see it one Saturday afternoon, after it first came out. This was an experience I will never forget, for it was then that I fell in love with Leonard Whiting’s ass. His bare naked ass was up there on the big screen for the world to admire and my 11 year old boy crazy eyes got to see it. It’s likely that my mother had no idea the movie would contain actual nudity (even if it was only like 2 seconds of nudity), because I doubt I would have been able to attend. No, she was probably thinking Romeo and Juliet was a great way for me to experience the literary greatness of Shakesphere, instead of my usual book fare of The Bobbsey Twins or our collection of ancient Nancy Drews. Afterwards, I bought the movie soundtrack and spent hours wearing the grooves down on the record while I memorized the dialogue and pretended I was Juliet, instead of that snotty actress, Olivia Hussey. Even her name sounded stuck-up. She couldn’t possibly appreciate young Romeo’s fine, firm ass they way I could.
Months later, after wearing out my Romeo and Juliet LP and having convinced myself that this Shakesphere fellow was a damn fine writer, I delved into some of his other works – which I promptly abandoned. It was hard for me to believe that the same person who wrote such a great love story could have written such dense and nonsensical crap as Hamlet and Macbeth. No, the only way I was going to appreciate Shakesphere was through the film versions, preferably with some nudity.
And this is where I stand today regarding the classics. If it’s not on film, I’m probably not going to know the story. Period.
I’m not a literary dummy, I just want my stories entertaining – even desperate and dark will do – but preferably in a language I can understand. Let’s face it, the English written in the 18th and 19th centuries is NOT what we speak today. It’s full of stuff like “It would be needless to say, that the gentlemen advanced in the good opinion of each other, as they advanced in each other’s acquaintance, for it could not be otherwise.”
I don’t even know what stuff like that means. However, when delivered as dialogue in a movie, it’s a lot easier to swallow.
It’s probable that some exposure to the great literary classics while I was in high school, and held hostage by a grade point, would have been a good idea. Instead, I’m left clueless when references are made to Hamlet’s ghost, or find myself wondering which Dickens story the Artful Dodger makes an appearance in. It’s a problem I’m not terribly keen on remedying anytime soon. I don’t need the grade and there are so many other great books to read that don’t require a hacksaw to cut through the dense underbrush of language.
Right now, my cousin Alice is reading Bleak House. I rolled my eyes and told her I was glad somebody was reading it, and that she could give me the high points later. I missed it when the miniplay ran on PBS.
Or maybe I was watching Project Runway instead. ..