Don’t know much about fine literature

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. ..

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18 Responses to “Don’t know much about fine literature”


  1. 1 poseidonsmuse September 5, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Holy Crap! You seriously need to consider doing stand-up comedy in your spare time girl. I seriously think you need to start charging your readers for the therapeutic outlet that you are supplying here. OMG! That was hilarious!

    Actually, I am going to be a literary loser and admit that I read a Midsummer-Night’s Dream only a few short months ago. I know…pffft. I read it as required reading in Grade 11 or so, and fell in love with the characters. With names like Quince, Snug, Bottum, Puck, and Mustardseed…this play demonstrates the fun and playful nature of Shakespeare. I digress…

    I have to admit that I am all about the potential nudity and sexual tension of ye ol’ classics (as you so coquettishly discussed…you little devil you!). Anyone that has spent time reading or watching the works of Jane Austen could attest to the palpable tension that literally reeks of repressed sexuality in these works. Whew…I think I need a smoke (second hand of course…).

    Quite frankly…there is nothing sexier than that bit which is left to the wildest of imaginations in Victorian writing. The more layers to that petticoat and frock, the better, in my crappy literary opinion. “Oh Mr. Darcy, let me unleash that hidden, sexual soul of yours….” Meow.

    I actually count the movie version of Sense and Sensibility as one of my all time favorites. Oh the sexual tension there is positively exquisite. But I just couldn’t wade through the novel version. Go figure. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and all of Kurt Vonnegut and Brave New Word, etc. – even Madame Bovary and a The Scarlet Letter (sex, you know), but those old English classics are just too much! Maybe I should try again…or maybe not!

  2. 2 AnthonyNorth September 5, 2007 at 4:47 pm

    Hi OB,
    I never read any classics when I was a kid, but when the writing bug took me I got stuck in. I soon devised a hard, fast rule. Anything over 500 pages, forget. I couldn’t hack it.
    Shakespeare, though, was a special case. I struggled from the start. But persevering, I realised there was something special about him. Place, time, etc, are incidental to his stories. He wrote about human relationships, aspirations, nightmares, hopes, disasters …
    In other words, he was timeless – and that explains why he’s so influential. Most of his plays can be set now, and will still be relevant in a thousand years time.
    Because he writes about us.
    Ass and all.

    I really should try. I should I know. But I probably won’t because my stack of books is already so high I can’t see over it. Seems there’s always a new novel or a memior coming out that I HAVE to read. The only really literary class I ever took was in college – The study of Myths and Fairy Tales. Too cool, eh?

  3. 3 Paul Baylay September 5, 2007 at 5:23 pm

    I believe there are now “updated” and abbrieviated works of both Dickens and Shakespeare. Either that or they are about to do it. There was a BBC debate on whether the works should actually be touched at all but as time goes by people don’t want to struggle with the English language of yesterday and there is also Anthony’s argument that many people do not want dive into a book 500 pages strong which was also discussed.

    I think its time to update and re-issue. Modernise them.. otherwise let them grow dusty in a library somewhere.

    Not that I have read them or anything.. so actually I don’t know what i am talking about.. umm right time for me to go then.

    Yeah! We need new, updated versions for the short-of-attention-span! Oh I can hear the purists now grinding their teeth…

  4. 4 Deb September 5, 2007 at 5:32 pm

    I was forced to read Merchants of Venice in high school, and while it was painful at first, I do think it was a good exercise. The thing to remember is that Shakespeare was not written to be read silently. They are all plays! Acting them out or reading them outloud yourself actually makes the language make more sense. It is sort of weird.

    Oh, I guess I read R&J as well, but honestly, most of what I remember is “I bite my thumb at you!” which, honestly, I do use once in a while. 😉

    The interesting thing is how many of these shakespearisms (not that one, but others) are pretty much part of our language now, and we don’t even realize it. Pound of flesh anyone? Merchants of Venice! Oh, maybe it wasn’t the first time it was ever used in literature, I don’t know, but it was cool to read.

    In college, still having read almost no shakespeare beyond what was required in high school, I went to an outdoor theater one nice afternoon for some “shakespeare in the park” to humor a friend. To my surprise, I understood it mostly! Spoken, I tell you, makes all the difference.

    Actually, you can search youtube for some great amateur versions of some of the key shakespeare soliloquies. It is sort of fun.

    BUT as long as we’re talking about movies, of which I’ve seen not many, I must recommend “Hamlet” starring Ethan Hawk and with Julia Stiles as Ophelia. It was amazing, one of those sorta-modernized versions, set today, but spoken as yesterday, and that helps too.

    I was in high school in the 80’s but we still analyzed rock music lyrics for one of my english classes! 😀

    That’s what I realized when I saw R&J – the spoken dialogue is way easier to comprehend than the written version. So true – since they’re plays they’re meant to be spoken and not read. My son is much better read in Shakespere than I could ever dream to be. So now he knows the references and can explain them to me! I should check out the movie version of Hamlet. It’s a start..

  5. 5 writerchick September 5, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    Hey Karen,
    If it’s classic movies you want – try Othello and Hamlet the films with Mel Gibson & Laurence Fishburn respectively. I think you might be able to get into it.

    Unlike you, I started reading Shakespeare when I was 12 or so. I bought all of his plays with my babysitting money and spent summers sitting under a big maple tree reading them. I loved the beauty and poetry of the language. I loved that I had to think to really understood what the words were saying.

    But if you can’t stand reading the plays – perhaps his sonnets would be to your liking. Some of them are quite beautiful.

    Dickens and Kafka never did much for me either or any of the Russians for that matter.

    Really though, it’s all a matter of taste. We read what speaks to us. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

    WC

    See, you were the 12 year old girl I WANTED to be! I was too busy reading Go Ask Alice and trying to figure out a way to run away from home to be a hippie in San Francisco – or get to Woodstock without my parents finding out! I’m thinking of trying Anna Karenina sometime (hey, it has my name in it so I HAS to be good, right?). Ooooh, I’ve read some of the Shakespere sonnets and they are absolutely beautiful!

  6. 6 Red September 5, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    Shooot, I wasn’t born until the late 70s, and even I know what that song was all about.
    MsOB, I’m with you. I have a few authors that I love an’ all, but the rest? I havent a clue. And Shakespeare? PPshhh! Though it sounds beautiful, I still can’t figger out half of what that man was trying to say.

  7. 7 poseidonsmuse September 5, 2007 at 10:31 pm

    I love Deb’s comment:

    “The thing to remember is that Shakespeare was not written to be read silently. They are all plays! Acting them out or reading them outloud yourself actually makes the language make more sense.”

    How true is this? Absolutely true…! Right on Deb. I guess this was early television for people of Shakespeare’s age…Entertaining words and ideas that were meant to enlighten and fill a theatre (The Globe) with visions of fantasy, far off lands, royalty and the unimagineable.

    As relevant as Shakespeare is to modern times (themes of lust, anarchy, insanity and romance)…we need to keep this in mind when we interpret and ponder his contribution to literature. There is a timelessness (and modernity) to his work regardless of the literary slogging required to mosh through his language.

    [My teeth are grinding…]. I’m not sure how I would feel about:

    “Yo, yo…Hey Juliette…Wanna go shag in the back of my Camaro baby…?!”

    Yeah…Doesn’t work for me either (as hilarious as this might sound). Coles Notes or not. Let’s keep the Shake in Shakespeare (unless of course, it’s a Monty Python parody starring Rowan Atkinson as Hamlet or Hugh Laurie as Bottom…). Now we’re talkin’…

    “Peace out!” (or is that…”Farewell, my sweets…!”)

    Muse, you never fail to give me a good laugh! (“Yo, yo…Hey Juliette…Wanna go shag in the back of my Camaro baby…?!”). I agree, it just doesn’t have the same effect. Has Monty Python ever done a Shakespeare parody?

  8. 8 poseidonsmuse September 6, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Allo there! Glad you got a laugh out of my insane comments. Uhm…I had to go on a bit of a Search this morning…But, apparently there is a book called “The Complete Works of Shakespeare and Monty Python” at:

    Not sure what this book is about – couldn’t find a very good description of it anywhere (it might literally be The Big Red Book combined with Shakespeare’s complete works…).

    Then there is this book (http://www.amazon.ca/Complete-Works-William-Shakespeare-Abridged/dp/1557831572) that has been dubbed the Reader’s Digest meets Monty Python version of Shakespeare (sans MP actors, I’m sure, although there is a video/cd version too).

    I tried googling to see if the MP gang made an actual parody of any of Shake’s works…to no avail. Maybe someone else has a lead on this?

    That could be worth checking out – anything Monty Python has got to be good. Thanks for your hard work to make my literary education more better!

  9. 9 poseidonsmuse September 6, 2007 at 7:58 am

    Bah! I lost my comment to the above post…sent submit and my comment went “poof”. Let me know if you got it OB…I’m pooched.

    Hee hee! I found you in spam between “mature fucking” and “big suckable breasts” ! Just where you wanted to be today!

  10. 10 prisonmike September 6, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    Dickens is one of my favorites. I find it fascinating to be taken to the streets of 19th century London without actually having to smell it.
    I realize that Hemingway is steeped in testosterone, but you really can’t go wrong with any of his stuff. The Old Man and the Sea is one of my personal faves. Much metaphorical acreage to be plowed there.
    You’re right though. So much of the “classics” are just so hard to understand without context. As old man Potter said in Wonderful Life “so much sentimental hogwash”.
    This thread reminds me of Tales of Ribaldry on SNL. Jon Lovitz as Eveelyn Quince, the host.
    Season 3 is out on DVD. You pickin up what I’m puttin down?

    “Flashing is not something to laugh at, I know. At last year’s Christmas party, Meredith flashed me and I nearly vomited.” – Michael Scott reacting to Phyllis get flashed in the parking lot.

    Bah!! You know The Office is pre-empted tonight for a football game. That is beyond depressing to me. Hmmm, do I smell a birthday gift suggestion with the Season 3 SNL? I keep thinking that right after I plow through the stack of books currently residing on my bedroom floor, I’ll have to dive into some classics – just in time for the cold, dark days of winter.

  11. 11 pradapixie September 6, 2007 at 2:00 pm

    we are so alike on this one!
    that Romeo, was he lovely!
    I once tired to read a kafka book once…my sister said I sould read better books… didn’t do it for me.
    Give me a gripping yarn anyday…
    And as for project runway you think that’s above America’s next top model?
    px

    Well, I’m almost afriad to start on American’s next top model, because I just end up getting totally sucked into those shows. I like Project Runway because sewing is something I can actually do, as opposed to modeling…you catch my drift? Oh yes, that Romeo particular Romeo was a hottie! You youngsters out there should give it a look.

  12. 12 joebec September 6, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    ugh! i HATED MacBeth. how freakin dreary. we had to read it for high school. that’s why i stick with Stephen King…or US Weekly. Now THAT’S good readin!

    oh, and that Olivia Hussey chic? well she better have been stuck up with a name like that. otherwise people would be calling her a hussey. no? not funny? sorry, i tried.

    Yuck, yuck, Reg! Me, I’m an Entertainment Weekly kind of a chick. Yeah, stupid Olivia Hussey, such a hussey.

  13. 13 poseidonsmuse September 6, 2007 at 10:05 pm

    “Mature fucking” and “Big suckable breasts.” Darnit…Can I go back there OB? Spam is where it’s at…

    I think you’ve had quite enough fun for one day, missy!

  14. 14 anonymum September 7, 2007 at 8:00 am

    personally i’d like to take shakespeare down a dark alley and beat 40 shades of shit out of him! i’m sorry, i see nothing classical about it at all, i think it’s dribble! this man has been responsible for generations of kids suffering in english lit classes, so he needs to be beaten up….
    am i gonna go to literary hell now do you think?

    Babe, I can always count on you to say the things I REALLY want to say! Oh gosh, if you’re going to literary hell, I’ll be there right next to ya!

  15. 15 Bill Howdle September 7, 2007 at 9:53 am

    I can really relate to what you have written. In high school my teacher was a great fan of Simon and Garfunkel (spelling??). We spent grades 11 and 12 breaking down their songs, looking for the “true meanings”.
    At the time I think we were all happy with that and to be honest I still am. I realize and recognize it is acknowledged as being great literature, but just not to my taste.
    Loved your post and the comments
    Bill

    Thanks Bill – Over the years I’ve discovered what types of classic literature I can plow through and what I can’t. Shakespeare just isn’t one of them, I’m afraid. I haven’t even cracked open a Dickens, but I’m afraid of what I might find!

  16. 16 anonymum September 7, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    goodo! i’ll bring the margaritas, you bring the clippers…see you on the bus 😉

    Mmmm, margaritas in hell…Nice touch mum.

  17. 17 RubyShooZ September 7, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    I’m deliriously happy reading anything except romance novels. Dickens, Shakespeare, Kafka, and new stuff too. Eclectic sorta girl but too, like you OB, in my spare time running off to Austin or hitchhiking around the US – it sure has been a busy life.

    Peace, love and books – with real live paper!

    (Dickens is fun – I just read Great Expectations and it was hilarious for the most part.)

    Yes, I have a hard an fast rule on not reading romance novels. I’m half scared I’ll actually get hooked on them! I was so tickled when you and I discovered we had both been in Austin at the same time. So you hitchhiked around the country too? (you HAVE had a busy life! You continue to amaze me, woman).

  18. 18 speckledbiter September 7, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    If you start with short you might find you can’t wait to get to long.
    A slim starter suggestion might be The Great Gatsby.
    There is a long way between Hamlet and the great American novel.
    Give it a shot…I like Heidi and Tim as much as the next girl, but you might be suprised at what you find in the words.

    The closest I ever got to reading F.Scott was reading the biography of his wife Zelda when I was a teenager. Not the best choice for a girl who was well on her way to being clinically depressed!


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