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Why I'm sticking with classics

My reasons for reading Hawthorne, Melville, and Dante are hardly noble.
By W. Frederick Wooden
Spring 2008 2.15.08

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reading glasses (Robert Kohlhuber/iStockphoto)

(Robert Kohlhuber/ iStockphoto)

I am a coward. You need to know this because this is the real reason behind my lofty policy when it comes to books.

I read only classics. That sounds horribly snobbish, but it covers my pale quivering belly of inadequacy. Some years ago I realized that people write books faster than I can read them. When I wandered around Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, or Powell’s, I was stupefied. I could not even take in the titles much less read them.

At parties people discussed Alice Munro, Robert Lethem, and other authors whose names always sound like authors and never like letter carriers or janitors or junior executives. Were it not for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, my weekly Cliffs Notes of current writing, I would end up washing dishes in the kitchen just to avoid having to say “who?” “what?” and “no.” But being a public person who is expected to be well read—I am a Unitarian Universalist preacher—I could avoid neither social occasions nor being asked about what I read.

Then, in a mist-covered year close to my fortieth, I realized two things. The number of classics is much smaller and not growing very fast. And most book readers don’t read classics and feel vaguely inadequate for not reading them. In a flash I realized my plan.

The first was Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. How I loathed it back in high school, with its curly syntax and lack of actual action. Now, though, the shadowed words were intoxicating and irresistible. And sure enough, when the white wine was being poured the question came up, “So Fred, what have you been reading lately?”

“Well, Bill, I can’t tell a good book from a bad one so I decided to re-read The Scarlet Letter.”

Intrigued silence. “Really? Isn’t that the one with . . .”

“Chillingworth?”

“Hmm.”

“Dimmesdale?” I was taunting him now.

“That doesn’t . . .”

“Hester Prynne?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

I was wicked that day. Like a ship armed with a new and better cannon, I was giddy with power, and I set about to build up my ammunition. Moby Dick was my next effort.

But pride went before that fall, and I stumbled and fell in the catalog of cetaceans. Realizing I did not have my sea legs, so to speak, I took a shakedown cruise with Billy Budd first, and as soon as I was back in port I set out again, climbing Father Mapple’s ladder into the pulpit, hearing the gold piece hammered onto the mast, and finally watching the Pequod crumble into the sea, the last act and words taking my breath away with their audacity:

. . . the bird of heaven, with archangelic shrieks, and his imperial beak thrust upwards, and his whole captive form folded in the flag of Ahab, went down with his ship, which, like Satan, would not sink to hell till she had dragged a living part of heaven along with her, and helmeted herself with it.

I could barely wait to start another. But which one? Gradually I realized great builds upon great, and pawed my way back to the Greeks. I reread dialogues of Plato, the Theban trilogy of Sophocles (magnificent in economy and power), and the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Bit by bit I savored and labored over the Iliad and the Odyssey (the former is majestic and tragic, the latter almost modern and ironic) and read the entirety of Robert Alter’s English translation of The Five Books of Moses (more a mine than a book, a sprawling text with long dusty parts occasionally studded with exquisite gems) and two of three volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy (I actually know some Italian and reading the original alongside the English was marvelous). To complement that and settle a moral debt I then trudged through the dactyls of Milton’s Paradise Lost (like wandering through a forest of marble redwoods, stately and imposing but remote and cool).

Far from being organized and thorough, my list careers from Voltaire to Fennimore Cooper, from Thucydides to Thomas Wolfe. There are large unfilled regions on this map: Faulkner still waits, and Arthur Miller. Stendhal and Dickens are getting impatient. Chekhov and Tolstoy are so deserving, but in these global times should I not attend to Lady Murasaki and Borges, and what about Cervantes? This may yet prove as impossible as keeping current with Knopf and friends.


I suspect that part of the fun of a newer book is that it is not a classic, and thus something with which one can find fault. Who after all has the nerve to dispute the Bard? But for some people, to diss something with a raised eyebrow and a jaded sigh is precisely what they want. They can persuade themselves that if they were to write a book it would certainly be better than this, whatever this is this week. In contrast, I have been told to write a book but have demurred, thinking about Hemingway’s enviable concision or de Toqueville’s bottomless insight.

The world has too many bad books already, and like Gresham’s law, they are driving out the good with a surfeit of mediocrity. As I get older and the time I have gets smaller, it seems obvious that spending time on a book that is new and uncertain, when I could spend it with one that is undeniably good even if it is old or well known, is far from the best choice.*

What about religious books? Well, I am rereading Augustine’s Confessions, one flagellating chapter at a time. I was inspired by a recent biography of the man by James O’Donnell, as I was moved to read Paul after reading Bruce Chilton’s Rabbi Paul. As often as possible I attend my local Conservative synagogue where I get a long look at a portion of Torah, usually with an intriguing devar torah (or homily) by the local rabbi.

I must confess that I am delinquent in UU reading. The Complete Works of William Ellery Channing, which I picked up for 50 cents thirty years ago, has barely been opened since seminary. I’ve read only a few essays of Emerson. James Luther Adams I have read but not recently, and Earl Morse Wilbur’s History of Unitarianism has pristine pages yet to be turned. When it comes to current UU writers, I explain my ignorance by saying to myself, “I know what I think, and UU books are at least statistically likely to be about stuff I already agree with.” But since I am telling the truth here, the fact is I am just plain envious of all my clergy colleagues who somehow manage to keep their jobs and their lives and knock out books. My truly deepest fear is that even if I could write a book it could not get published. This is not merely neurotic; I have the pink slips from Skinner House to confirm it.

So I take refuge from envy and failure in the company of giants. I am closing in on the end of Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude and am savoring the thought of Elie Wiesel’s Night. Long ago I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, and it deserves a re-read, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women has sat upon my shelf for a generation. (When I googled that last one to confirm the spelling of “Wollstonecraft,” I first got a popup window promoting Paris Hilton, or at least her cleavage. I cannot tell whether this was ironic or exemplary, so I had better start reading.)

Hardly a noble policy in the end, but in my last bit of honesty I have to admit there is nothing better than having someone ask me about Alice Sebold or Patricia Cornwell or Dave Eggers, or, for that matter, Forrest Church or Marilyn Sewell or Gary Kowalski, and being able to respond, “Forgive me for not reading it yet, but I am in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars. More wine?”

Cowardice has its compensations.


Correction 4.7.08: As originally published, this sentence inadvertently expressed the opposite of the author's view, stating "it seems obvious that spending time on a book that is new and uncertain . . . is by far the best choice." Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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