Thursday, April 08, 2010

Reading Great Literature. Or Not.

I was an English major in college, many years ago. My college work was almost entirely reading, then writing about what I'd read. (I chose English as a major simply because I'd always loved to read. At 18 I was far too impractical to worry about what kind of job I could get with an English degree.) Many of the assigned books were not to my taste. Callow and smug, I missed a lot of the subtleties and themes in the Great Literature of which all English majors must partake.

Yet I knew those books were considered great for good reason. Some were ground-breaking at the time they were written, even if they seemed ponderous or boring by modern standards. Others had beautiful prose or great stories or unforgettable characters; some had all of the above. I always knew, however, that I had to consider every book within the context of its times. Even the ones I had to force myself to read -- such as The House of the Seven Gables and The Scarlet Letter-- were important within the context of the eras in which they were written.

After I graduated from college, I still read constantly, but I turned to popular fiction, with emphasis on genre fiction of various types. I wanted to read for pleasure; I didn't want reading to be "work." Yet although I prefer Popular Fiction to Timeless Classics, I am disheartened by "Amazon reviewers think this masterpiece sucks," Jeanette Demain's essay on one-star reviews on Amazon. The article is funny yet tragic. Demain describes the reviews by people who hated, just hated, the great novels of the the English language. What saddens me is how little these readers seems to realize the books they're panning were written in different eras, written by and for people whose lives, history, educations, and moral backgrounds differed vastly from ours. Examples:

The Grapes of Wrath -- "trite, contrived"
To Kill a Mockingbird--"sappy, cliched"
Jane Eyre--"endless, pointless description ...  stupid metaphors"
Charlotte's Web--"how in the world does a pig and a spider become friends?"
An American Tragedy--"bleak narrative of little consequence"

There's more--not only in Demain's essay, but of course on Amazon. I won't go looking for more one-star reviews, however, because they would depress me too much. Certainly every reader is entitled to have his or her opinion of a book, but I'm saddened to realize how many people are ignorant of history, of literary experience, and of the desire to experience the many different forms of the novel.


Charles Gramlich said...

SOme of those reviewers are just stupid. nothing else can be said.

Lana Gramlich said...

That's partially why I ignore any site that allows public reviews. People tend to be idiots, particularly with the relative anonymity of the internet.

cs harris said...

That's why I hated college lit classes--I didn't want reading to be work. That said, some English teacher in the tenth grade handed her class a list entitled The One Hundred Books Every Educated Person Should Have Read, and I spent years plowing my way through it (never did quite finish). I don't regret it. But one must indeed approach classic literature with a different mindset.