#36. Reading the Classics

I have a confession to make, although it probably won’t surprise you: I’m bored with this whole project. I’m completely over the idea of pursuing change, partly – and ironically – because of one of the major revelations I’ve experienced thus far. That is: I think this notion of our having to change constantly is pretty bogus. Not the most enchanting way of putting it, but there you have it. What I mean is that I’m spending so much time worrying about what to change and how to change it and whether or not it lends itself to Big Lessons and Moderately Interesting Blog Entries that it doesn’t leave much time to notice that there’s so much about my life that I don’t want to change. Not feelin’ free to be me and me, and all that.

I realize that the notion that—in Dr. Phil speak—I’m okay exactly as I am is a huge gift. Sadly, I am singularly focused on the fact that it’s a gift that leaves me with 16 more weeks of change before I’ve put in a full year on this blog.


So I’m soldiering on, even if that means I am doing so in a half-assed, uncommitted sort of way. This is what happens when you’re stubborn, yet have exceptionally low standards.

Having gotten that all off my proverbial chest, on to this week’s change for the better. As always, a little background… I’m embarrassed to admit that, for someone raised in a household with a heavy emphasis on classic literature, I am woefully unread in this area. As a result, I have a bad case of what the experts (me) call LIC – Literary Inferiority Complex. As a writer, this is a particularly bad affliction to have.

Therefore, I decided to rectify the problem and improve myself exponentially by reading all the major classic works of literature and poetry in one week.

Okay. Not really.

But I did decide to try and make a dent in my towering mental stack of unread works, tackling at least one classic poem or short story a day for seven days in a row. By the end of it all, I’d be much, much smarter. Much, much worldlier. At the very least, I’d have a slightly better chance of answering some questions on Jeopardy.

Where to begin, though, with such a ridiculous undertaking? One begins, as with all things, on the internet, Googling “classic poems” and “classic short stories.” And one is quickly overwhelmed with list after list, opinion after (dubious) opinion about what constitutes the “best” or “most important” when it comes to literature and poetry. And one walks away from the computer screen with a throbbing headache, a growing sense of doom and regret and instead locates on her bookshelf a torn and dusty copy of that stalwart of high school literature: the Norton anthology.

Flipping open to the table of contents, I was pleased to discover that I had actually read the majority of the short stories deemed required reading for any student of literature. A number of them I’d read repeatedly. By choice! But there were still others whose names were entirely familiar but which I had never read. I started alphabetically, with Ambrose Bierce’s “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.” I was off to the races!

Man, did I feel instantly smarter. I could feel my brain growing, my mind expanding! Look at me! One short story down. I was on a tear. Nothing could stop me. The days that followed were a blur of classics. For the first time in my life, I read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and finally understood the whole albatross thing. Genius! I read Keats, Byron, Browning. I dabbled in Shakespeare’s sonnets. I read Chekov and Twain and Conrad.

I’m not ashamed to say – by which I mean I’m totally ashamed to say – that it took me forever to get through this stuff. I found myself glazing over again and again, having to read and re-read the same paragraph multiple times until enough of it sunk in to move on to the next. Half the time I had absolutely no idea what I was reading and had to look it up, line by line, just to see if it made any sense.

In truth, something far bigger than confusion haunted me as my reading week wore on. Something far more sinister, far more dangerous. It was…boredom.

I know. Not very literarily sophisticated of me.

I am a person who loves to read. Loves, loves, loves to read. And yet…I wasn’t enjoying much of what I was devouring. Thus, I found myself towards the end of the week wondering, as I have with so many other changes, “Why the hell am I doing this, again?”

It was an extremely valid question. The sort of question born of a vastly expanded intellect. I was clearly checking off items on some sort of To Do list. But whose list – and why on earth did it even matter?

Enter Uncomfortable Realization #8,271: this was all about ego. Again. Sigh. I was reading to feel “equal” to everyone who’d read that stuff. That’s it. That superficial little nugget is really all it was about.

I can’t imagine that having those notches on my classics belt is gonna change the way I read or write. It was just literary keeping up with the Joneses—and I hate that part of me feels the need to do that. I don’t want to be a person who measures herself by what other people think of what I’ve read. I don’t want to worry about it and I certainly don’t want to engage in intellectual snobbery, no matter how strong my genetic propensity for it may be.

Sigh. Again, the lesson didn’t come from the change itself this week—it came from my feelings about the change. And the conclusions I come to, which often feel very repetitive to me, seem to be moving me concretely towards whatever my authentic self is. Feel free to shoot me in the head for just using the phrase “authentic self.” Who am I? Oprah?

A lot of times, I’m discovering a discrepancy between some old idea of who I thought I was who I thought I wanted to be and who I actually am. It takes this crazy experiment for me to understand that in many ways I’ve already changed, even if my thinking hasn’t quite caught up.  The old me wanted to feel literarily on par with other people. The current me?  Doesn’t actually care.

It’s worth repeating this week’s Big Realization, if only so I might remember it: I don’t want to be someone who worries about how other people judge me – for my reading list or anything else. I suspect this is part of the grace that comes with age and maturity.

And I may be closer to being that than I realize most of the time, so caught up in old ideas about myself am I. I’ve spent so much of my life keeping score and worrying about how I compare to others and it certainly hasn’t brought me a moment’s peace. Unlike reading what I love, what I want to read, when I want to read it. Now, that has brought me countless moments of peace. That is how I want to live my life.