I can remember the specific moment in my life when my love of literature and reading was seriously challenged and I turned my mind away from the concept of literature as worthy of my efforts. It was in 9th grade English and the class was assigned to read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” for homework. While reading we were to determine the story’s major irony and be ready for a quiz the next day.
If you are not familiar with the story, it concerns one man’s quest for revenge against the villain who offended him and it focuses on the “villain’s” love of wine (and especially a select barrel of Amontillado). The main character lures his villain to the wine cellars with the promise of this rare and beautiful cask of wine and, in the process, convinces the villain to actually brick himself into the wine cellar to die.
Everyone in the class was in agreement that the major irony of the story was the fact that the “villain’s” love of wine was actually his undoing; that the wine he so loved was what ended up killing him. Unfortunately, the teacher had other thoughts and we all failed the quiz. Apparently the major irony of the story was the fact that the “villain’s” name was “Fortunato” and since he ended up dying at the end of the story, he wasn’t very fortunate was he?
Look, I can appreciate that people have different interpretations of literature. Literature, like art, affects people in different ways and everyone brings their own perspective and prejudices to literature just as it would a painting or sculpture. But the aspect of the exercise that truly injured my sensibilities was the fact that the teacher told me I was wrong. Not that there was another interpretation, not that scholars have argued about this or that—no, the teacher categorically and with affirmation declared my interpretation of the literature as being wrong.
And that was enough for me to seriously fight with literature, something that I truly struggled with for about 20 years. I still read excessively, but I stuck with the bestsellers and the throwaway novels. When I had to read Melville’s “Billy Budd” in college, I warred with the professor over the interpretation that Billy Budd was a “Christ-figure.” When I had to read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” I presented a term paper that ripped the book to shreds and castigated it as the garbage-stylings of a drugged-out mind. While I won’t say that I was scarred by my 9th grade experience with Poe, I felt that my love of reading had been tarnished by a teacher who made me question my own abilities in reading comprehension.
But eventually, I began to come back around—now that no one can tell me I am wrong, I am venturing back out into the world of literature. Certainly my stimulation by Dickens has been well documented here, but I have recently begun to explore other well-known works. In fact, I just finished Robert Louis Stevenson’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and I have to tell you that I truly dug it; it was just a cool, creative book.
I also recently finished what many consider to be the greatest American novel ever written, “The Great Gatsby” and I have to confess, I don’t understand what the hubbub is all about. I guess it was an ok story, but not terribly weighty, poor character development, and somewhat of a drag to get through. And yet the “scholars” have figured out a way to find the symbolism in the work, to make the story something more, something bigger and more important than I certainly perceived.
Which made me think again about how someone can be wrong about what they read. When you go the book store, the sections are divided as “Mystery and Thriller,” “Science Fiction and Fantasy” and “Fiction and Literature.” What makes a work simply “fiction,” and what puts it into the upper-echelon of “literature?” Is it just the interpretation of “scholars?” Look, a book can be really, really good, but is it literature? Is “The Firm” literature or just a really good book? In 50 years, will “scholars” be analyzing “The Da Vinci Code” to find its symbolism? And if they come up with some “symbolism,” will it really be what Dan Brown had intended? Do we give our authors that much credit?
Sure, I understand “Jekyll and Hyde” and the concept of the duality of our personalities. But is it possible that Stevenson simply wanted to write a mystery novel and thought that a clever way to do it was to make the villain and the hero the same person? Did he really intend for the novel to be this huge expose on the ogres inside of us just yearning to break free?
Did F. Scott Fitzgerald really intend for “Gatsby” to be so heavy with symbolism as to be fodder for scholars for decades thereafter? Or was he just trying to sell some books and entertain people?
How do we know???
And yet, I am determined to still work through some of these “classics” of literature. I stocked up my shelves with Faulkner and Conrad and Twain and Orczy and I will push through them, cheating with cliff notes if need be, but only to gain new perspectives on the novels, not to convince me that my interpretations of them are incorrect or wrong. Take “Gatsby;” I feel no shame or dishonor in stating that I simply didn’t get it, that it was a fine novel but nothing earth shattering or awe-inspiring. And no one can tell me I am wrong. I just have a different perspective and understanding and I am absolutely fine with that.
I think that our children are being done a disservice when it comes to literature. I think we are all in agreement that we generally disliked books in school because we were forced to read them. But I would argue differently with my newfound perspective. I think that I disliked the books not because they were forced on me, but because I was in fear of being wrong in my interpretations. I was gun-shy of expressing my own opinions for fear of getting a bad grade.
Literature must be taught like the art that it is; every one of us brings our own prejudices and life-experiences to literature and those beliefs and though-processes must be nurtured and encouraged, not suppressed. I think we will have a much better-read society if we do that—because some of the literature I have read is pretty damn cool…
Now on to “The Catcher in the Rye.” I can already hear Vin Scully with the narration- I so do love books about baseball…