Literature — Larger Than Life

I have been reading, which is always a dangerous thing.

No, really, reading is dangerous.  It challenges the twin conditions of Status Quo and Ignorance.  Which is probably why is has been encouraged to decline.  I do not know what the current literacy rates are, but I see what people check out in libraries, what students come slouching sullenly to the desk to request, hear the verbal banalities pour, not just from the mouths of other babes, but my own, and it makes me weep.

In case you have not noticed, I’ve been reading classic literature and essays by Ray Bradbury.  Both put me in a maudlin kind of mood where I hover between ecstasy and madness.  Because when I read them, if I’m lucky, I get the sensation that there are great truths hidden within them, sentences and paragraphs that resonate with me, but I have no means of expressing them.  The sheer abundance of creativity makes me want to simultaneously shout my joy to the heavens and slink back home and tear up the pages of my manuscripts that aren’t nearly as beautiful or insightful.  (So far I rarely express the former in public and I’ve resisted the urge to perform the latter.)

I’ve noticed a sad tendency in myself to understate what I read.  I’ve found that I hesitate telling others that I’m reading Dickens or Shakespeare or Scott Fitzgerald or Bram Stoker just for fun.  Reading for fun is natural and normal, and I don’t hesitate to tell others about the fantasy novels or sci-fi or manga or anything else I might be reading.  But if it falls under the heading of “Literature” then it suddenly becomes taboo.  I become…embarrassed, like I’m lording over people or making pretenses of intelligence or insight that I don’t have.  If you read literature outside of a school assignment you become an elitist nerdy snob.  I might be nerdy, but I’m not an elitist and I don’t think I’m a snob.  Nor am I particularly intelligent, just on the slightly higher end of average.

Over the years, literature has been given an elevated status, a mythic air that removes it from the realm of the average reader and is guarded jealously by the ranks of the literati.  If you don’t have a Ph.D in Literary Linguistics, you have no business trying to interpret these stories on your own.  In fact, without the benevolent dictatorship of a professor, you can’t unlock its secrets.  So, sit down, shut up, and drool like a good Neanderthal.

Have you ever felt like that?  I know I have and it infuriated me because I could sense that I was in the presence of some wonderful, timeless stories that were being ruined by the over-interpretation/analysis/symbolism of these teachers.  Everyone seems to have forgotten that literature was written to be read.  Average people enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays, waited eagerly at the docks for the next installment of a Dickens novel, chatted about Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and e.e. cummings.  They were written for others to read, to like, and, hopefully, to purchase.  The things that made literature stand out over the years are a mixture of time and the unique.  The “greats” of literature touch on themes, tales, characters, something that sticks with readers and rings particularly true.  But truth often varies with perspective, so a book that might resound with me because of my experiences might be little more than drivel to you.  Or vice versa.  I certainly think that while some authors deserve the acclaim they receive as literary authors, others I think are over-promoted to the point where their stories can’t live up to the hype.

I really believe that literature is a fine wine that is better appreciated with age.  The older the wine, the greater the texture and taste…or so I’ve been told; I have no real experience with wine.  But that is how people who are connoisseurs of wine tell it, so the metaphor is apt.  I was homeschooled, and my dad was my primary teacher.  He told me about the greats like Dickens and Shakespeare, but for the most part we didn’t delve into them because I was between the ages of 6 and 11.  He made me aware of their existence, but we did not read them.  We started off with smaller, more manageable chunks and he fostered my love of reading in general to encourage me to pick up some of those heftier books when I got older.

I ended up reading Hamletin 6th grade, and that was a mistake.  In middle school, and even high school, we only read Shakespeare’s plays.  We never actually saw a live performance.  Once in a while, for a section, we might watch a movie production of the plays.  I remember seeing Mel Gibson’s Hamlet, two versions of Romeo and Juliet (one of which was the horrible “updated” DiCapprio version), and a badly filmed colorized production of Macbeth because the other students voted against Orson Welles’ intense black-and-white version.  Simply because it was black-and-white.  I wish our teacher hadn’t put it up to a vote because I know she would have picked the better version.  I had trouble with Shakespeare because it was a play.  A play is pretty much line after line of dialogue with the occasional “enter” or “exit” notation or “they fight.”  No descriptions of scene, no indicators of how a line is delivered, and because the language is very different from modern English, I couldn’t figure out anything from context because I couldn’t understand the context.  I had to do too much translation to figure out what was going on.  I ended up regarding Shakespeare with much of the same contempt that I’ve given most English classes; as something that was supposedly great but was probably overrated that I couldn’t access.

Even writings that weren’t plays often annoyed me because of the over-emphasis on symbolism or subtext.  I was frustrated because I wasn’t allowed to read and enjoy the story for its own sake.  It was like being forced to dissect a rare bird rather than sitting back and observing it in its natural habitat.  Nope, we had to take it apart to see all the guts and gore before even knowing what kind of bird is was.  Plus, I couldn’t even relate to most of the stories.  Why?  I was only a teenager.  I really had no experience.  I didn’t work, I had no bills, I had no real struggles, and my family was, blessedly, free of many of the sorrows that families face, such as abuse, alcoholism, and divorce.  I read these stories and found nothing to connect with.  I was too young, too new, too raw.  I had no basis of comparison, so most literature meant nothing to me.  I found more in common with the young adult stories of isolationism, of yearning (and going to) new, fantastic worlds of magic and large-than-life adventures.  A lot of literature deals with “real life” and real settings, which didn’t interest me.

My relationship with literature changed in my last year of college.  I had a professor named Dr. Russo and she changed everything.  I’d had her for British Literature before and enjoyed it because of her enthusiasm, intelligence, and knowledge.  So, when I heard that Dr. Russo was going to have a Shakespeare class, I leapt at the chance.  This was my opportunity to learn from someone who is as obsessive about the Bard and his works as I am about anime and fantasy.  I swear, Dr. Russo has read all of Shakespeare’s work multiple times, seen every production, film or live, of every Shakespeare play ever produced, and viewed, read, or listened to anything else relating to Shakespeare and his works.  And not only is she knowledgeable about her subject, but she can present it to students in a way that makes sense.  She can impart the knowledge, which is just as important, if not moreso, as acquiring the knowledge in the first place.  Even better, we did not focus on the tragedies.  Have you noticed that pretty much every time a class lists Shakespeare, the plays they pick are the tragedies?  HamletMacbethRomeo and Juliet…once in a while you get a comedy like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but usually you get one of three.  (I remember that I had expressed my disgust with Romeo and Juliet in Brit Lit, so the first day of the Shakespeare class, Dr. Russo announced, “…and no, Kat, we will not be reading Romeo and Juliet.”  I cheered.)

But this class was different.  We did look at a tragedy, but one that I’d never read called Othello.  We also looked at The Taming of the Shrew for the comedies.  But the plays we focused on were the histories: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 & 2, Henry V, and Richard III.  Yes.  We did cover all of those plays.  And I loved them.  Whenever there was a good video production of a play, Dr. Russo would show us part of it in preparation for the nightly reading.  Thus, if we had to read Act 2, scenes 1-3 that night, she would show us the corresponding scenes in the movie, so we would have a visual image of what was going on.  “Shakespeare’s plays are meant to be heard and seen, not read,” she said.  And she’s right,  Why generations of English teachers insist only on reading the plays, I don’t know.  Why we merely “read” plays period is beyond me.  It can be read in conjunction with the play, but you always need to seeit.  I can’t tell you how much more understanding, appreciation, and emotional impact can be imparted to an otherwise dry script if you get to see it.  When there were multiple video versions, Dr. Russo would show how directors and actors would present scenes differently, which added a new dynamic.  Since no one alive has ever seen a Shakespeare play performed as he directed them, modern directors and actors bring their own interpretations to the screen or stage.

The two contrasts that stood out the most for me were the differences in Laurence Olivier’s Henry Vand Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V.  Olivier’s version is brightly lit and brightly colored, full of pageantry like Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood.  Branagh’s version is darker and grittier, much more realistic.  The biggest contrast is in the battle scene when Henry V’s forces clash with the French.  In Olivier’s version, the camera focuses on the charging French knights on horseback, while Branagh’s focuses on the dirty, hungry, terrified English foot soldiers waiting for the charge to reach them.  It gives the play an entirely different feel, depending on where you point the camera and deliver the lines.  For the first time, I was emotionally invested in Shakespeare, and that had never happened before.  The dry lines sprang to life and gained meaning.  The people on the page became real, thanks to Dr. Russo’s enthusiasm and presentation.  Best of all, we got to go see the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Richard II on stage.  It was…impressive.  Awe-inspiring.  There really are no words.  I did write a review of the play for class (although I don’t know how informative or helpful it will be without seeing the play or having some knowledge of it.)  It was so good, that a few die-hard among us, including Dr. Russo, traveled back down to Washington, D.C. to watch the second production they had running, Henry V (same cast, different roles, although Michael Hayden played both Richard II and Henry V.  Being able to compare and contrast different presentations of the same text allows for a much deeper understand and better appreciation for the text than just reading it and discussion it out of context in a classroom.  Now, thanks to Dr. Russo, I am looking forward to BBC’s production The Hollow Crown, premiering this summer!

You might be wondering if I’m a hypocrite for bashing academia about presenting literature in one paragraph and then gushing about how wonderful my English professor was in college.  Well, there were two big differences:  1) my professor had enthusiasm, and 2) I had more experience.  In college, I was living on my own, working part-time, and was learning to deal with stress, heartache, depression, poverty, politics, and others that I’ve probably blocked from my mind.  Point is, I was learning.  Not really from college per se, but I had more experiences to compare with and relate to in literature that gave it more meaning for me.  My 24-year-old self has a different perspective on life than my 12-year-old self, hopefully a deeper, richer one.  I’m finding that the older I get, the more I can relate to and enjoy literature that was inscrutable to me only a few years ago.  Granted, that means that some books I used to adore now seem shallow, light, or childish, but that’s life.  You grow.  You expand.  You move on.  Right now I’m diving into The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a book I never would have considered a few years ago thank to my disastrous introduction to The Great Gatsby.  Now…I’m considering giving “the great American novel” a second chance.

I do not know if any of you read any classic literature, the ones that were beaten into our heads as being “great” when you were in school.  I really hope that, even if you hated them in school, that this year or in a few years, you might pick one or two up and try them again.  And don’t be ashamed of it!  Some of these stories you might not understand or appreciate now, and maybe some you never will care for.  But there is (or was) something eminently human about them that encouraged readers to remember them long after the authors turned to dust.  So take a look.  You might find something wonderful.

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