Reading the classics

Even before reading Soldier’s Heart (see my previous post), I had been thinking about trying to read some of the classic literature that I never read when I was in school. I read a fair amount that wasn’t for school assignments, but that was mostly when I was still in school (i.e. up through getting my M.A. in Spanish in 1984).

Back then I prided myself on reading mostly the sort of books that would be assigned in school. I’m not sure if I thought that reading them made me a better person, or just that, being the sort of person who enjoyed good literature, I wouldn’t enjoy popular fiction.

Then I tried reading some popular fiction, and discovered that a good deal of it made very enjoyable reading, and that it still dealt with important themes about human life and society. To refuse to read it because it wasn’t considered “literature” seemed an elitist attitude that reflected too much pride in my intellectual abilities.

But now and then, seeing lists of classical literature that I haven’t read (such as the top 100 lists that make their way through facebook now and then), I wonder what I have missed out on. I have always valued education, and tried to keep learning new things.

A few months ago, I got the idea to try to go back and read some of the great writings of the past that had not made it into either my schoolwork or my private reading. But I also know that a lot of what I learned from what I studied in school came from the teacher’s lectures, class discussions, and having to write papers on the book and its themes. How much would I learn without that?

Well, more, I suppose, than by not even trying to read them at all. With plenty of time to read over the holiday break (one of the perks of working at a college), I decided to tackle The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. I chose it because a) it was on the “classics” shelf in our den, and b) I had once tried to read it before, but didn’t make much progress before having to return it to the library. (I picked up this copy at a used book sale so that I would not have that particular difficulty in the future.)

It certainly does start slowly, and without a week off I doubt I would haven’t gotten much further this time. But I hadn’t gotten any books for Christmas (I did order one for my birthday, in a couple weeks), and I finished my latest library book (Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder) in about one day. The boys (i.e. husband and sons) were occupied with games (the usual computer games, plus Magic: the Gathering, and The Red Dragon Inn), so I had plenty of time to myself to read.

And now that I have finished it (it took about four or five days), I am trying to decide what I have gotten out of reading it, besides the satisfaction of having something I can check off my mental to-read list. Despite some boring parts (what exactly is the purpose of the extremely detailed description of the city of Paris?), on the whole I found it interesting, but hardly engrossing. Of course, I had a pretty good idea what was going to happen (perhaps from reading critiques of the Disney animated adaptation), so there wasn’t any real surprise except as to details.

Did I learn anything about human nature, or about how love (or what we think is love) can motivate us either to great sacrifice or great evil? I’m sure I’ve seen examples of similar behavior in many other books (including popular fiction) as well as real life, though in less extreme (and thus probably more realistic) contexts.

I felt the revulsion that Hugo presumably intended readers to feel at the injustices perpetrated by the supposed “justice” system of fifteenth-century France. I had read enough, both literature and history, that none of that was new to me, and I tried not to dwell on the unpleasant details but feel grateful not to live under such a system today.

No doubt there is certainly plenty wrong with our own system. A lawyer friend told me years ago that we don’t have a justice system, we have a legal system. Money still perverts justice, and ignorance and indifference allow things to go on that people would be outraged at if they saw it happening to people they care about.

But there are protections for the accused, such as Quasimodo and La Esmeralda never had. Sometimes that allows the guilty to go free, because the evidence was not sufficient, but I don’t have to worry that I will be accused of witchcraft, as La Esmeralda was (an accusation virtually impossible to refute), or be tried by a judge who is neither willing nor able to hear the defense (as in Quasimodo’s case).

I did find it very interesting to read Hugo’s discussion of how books replaced buildings as a means of creative expression. I greatly enjoyed visiting the old buildings when I was in Europe, and thought it was too bad that such architecture seems to belong only to the past. Yet it’s hard to justify spending huge amounts for beautiful buildings, when there are so many other needs that seem greater.

I had thought of that change of attitude as being connected to economics (moving decorative elements from public buildings to private, as wealth grew among the middle class), and perhaps to religion, but I had never thought of it being related to printing press and the spread of books. Hugo’s assertion that, before then, all other arts were tied up with architecture, and in some way subservient to it, is also intriguing. I would be interested in seeing what historians say about it.

I tried looking for online discussions of the novel, and found a variety of opinions written about it (it’s boring, it’s wonderful, it’s good but not as good as Les Misérables – the other book by Hugo that I mean to read), but not (so far) what I would call a real “discussion,” where people interact with each other and their views. I did find a good book review, which seems to sum up better than I can (or at any rate better than I intend to try, since someone already did it so well) what is important to say about the book.

I haven’t decided what to read next. (I started looking at a Jules Verne novel, before my latest requests from the local library came in, but I don’t know whether that counts as a “classic” other than in the context of science fiction.) I’m very much open to suggestions, both as to what to read as well as how to get the most out of it.

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