In 2013, we are encouraging our readers to mix up their reading habits, and read (or re-read) classics in addition to new books, such as the ones we review here in the ERB.
Broadly speaking, a classic is any book that is not a new book, or in other words that is worth reading five, ten or even one hundred years after its initial publication. ERB Editor Chris Smith has an article on The Huffington Post website arguing for reading a mix of classics and new books in 2013.
We’ve asked a number of noted writers to pick the classics that they often return to, and we will be running these lists as a weekly feature on our website through 2013.
This week’s post in the series is by Jen Pollock Michel.
Writers on the Classics:
[ #1 - Shane Claiborne ] [ #5 (Last Week) - Amy Frykholm ]
Jen Pollock Michel is a writer, speaker, and mother of five. She is a member of Redbud Writers Guild and writes regularly for Christianity Today’s Her.Menuetics. Currently, she is working on a book manuscript called Found Wanting: At the Intersection of Faith and Desire. Jen earned her B.A. in French from Wheaton College and her M.A. in Literature from Northwestern University. She lives in Toronto, Canada, with her family and blogs at www.findingmypulse.com. You can follow Jen on twitter @jenpmichel.
I remember learning to “read” French Rococo paintings in a graduate school course. We learned that in the paintings of Watteau, Boucher and Fragonard, books were a symbol of scandal, a kind of visual innuendo. The painters had something to say about sex, but they had to rely upon concealment. So they hid their secrets in the pages of a book.
Books of course have always been synonymous with scandal. If it weren’t true that the “pen is mightier than the sword,” we wouldn’t have our incendiary history of book burnings. And while book burnings aren’t de rigueur today, we have yet something to fear: our own boredom.
The greatest scandal today may be that books interest us so little. As Neil Postman said decades ago, we’re amusing ourselves to death. And I was no more convinced of this than recently, when my child’s school sent home a note asking parents to kindly send in an electronic device with their child for the upcoming dress rehearsal of the school show. In anticipation of downtime, they (THE SCHOOL!) could sadly imagine only one solution for the crisis of unstructured time.
I sent my children to school with a book.
I shudder to imagine my life with books: my childhood without Charlotte’s Web; my college years without Anna Karenina; my adult life without the likes of Joan Didion, N.T. Wright, Madeline L’Engle, and Ian McEwan. (It’s true that I’m reading fewer literary classics these days. With the house only quiet after 9 p.m., it requires Herculean strength to stay awake.)
Or maybe, I, too, am growing undisciplined in my reading, struggling with my own desire for a quick tickle of entertainment. Reading well (by this, I mean reading broadly and attentively the books that may not immediately fascinate) is a discipline. It always has been. It’s just seems harder now to make this effort.
Especially when I have an iPhone.
I am indeed grateful to this series and its many wonderful recommendations of books well worth my time. I find I need this great cloud of witnesses, the testimony of those who’ve stuck with the discipline of reading in an age of distraction.
It inspires me. To read. To stay awake. And to keep at the scandal of learning to live.
The Scarlet Letter
By Nathaniel Hawthorne
This novel taught me something about the toxicity of sin: not the sin of adultery, as one might expect, but the sin of subterfuge. Pretending to be someone you are not ¾ especially when that someone is religious and respectable ¾ is a suicidal form of play-acting. Dimmesdale is the kind of haunting character you aren’t likely to forget.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
“He asked himself why he had not judged Tess constructively rather than biographically, by the will rather than by the deed.” Tess’s life is a bitter history, and she is a tragic character. You certainly don’t read this novel to feel good. But Hardy succeeds in humanizing choices, for which we might otherwise feel little sympathy. And as we read, we can’t help but realize that we are each Tess, our lives the complicated consequence of having sinned and been sinned against. It’s a story to make you thirsty for grace.