“Had we but world enough, and time, This coyness, lady, were no crime.”
Once upon a time I read classics, the whole classics and nothing but the classics - something that's probably fairly common amongst people with literature degrees, earned by those who spent four years studying useful subjects like Middle English which, when it comes back into vogue, we'll be the only ones who can speak. And won't you feel silly then for studying something that netted you a mere job. Because what's employment compared to being able to ace all the brown questions in Trivial Pursuit?
The reason for my reading choice wasn't because I didn't realize people were still writing books; it's because I was a snob, insofar as the classics enthralled me, wrapping me up all snug and warm, as if the books themselves were blankets of ermine (which I wouldn't use, mind, because I'd be against wearing all those dead animals) and I, the reader, curled up, lying comfortably and toastily warm as I read and read and read.
What modern book could do that? I was reading books with the stamp of approval of great minds everywhere: scholars and professors and Harold Bloom - oh my! Why would I ever want to read anything new? Does anything new go well with blankets of ermine?
When I think back on it, this wasn't really all that long ago, relatively speaking. I belonged to a few online reading groups which read only classics (one a French group (in translation), another Victorian, etc.) and, honestly, I saw no reason to read outside that zone. I went so far as to sniff haughtily at contemporary books and those who wasted their lives away reading them. Never mind I hadn't read anything new in so long I couldn't even remember; I just knew what I knew by assumption. If a writer still lived he wasn't worth a damn.
I was discerning, you see, because I had earned a BACHELOR OF ARTS DEGREE in ENGLISH LITERATURE. I knew my books, my authors, my iambic pentameter. I GRADUATED WITH HONORS.
The tide only began to turn, very slowly, when I started reviewing books, which are, of course, pretty much always newly published (with the exception of new translations of classics, new editions, etc.). And, while I wasn't so crazy about all of them, I hit upon enough great reads to convince me it was worthwhile to continue pursuing contemporary writing. Since them I've learned how gob-smackingly wonderful some modern authors are ("modern," in this sense, meaning mostly living or recently passed on). And now? Well, now I can't recall when I last read a classic.
How the mighty have fallen.
Now that I'm "of a certain age," I can't help thinking there's only so much time left in my reading life and here I find myself reading only the new stuff, which I'd never have imagined less than a decade or so ago. I love most of it (what I choose, not always what I must review) but I'm also letting prime classics reading time slide right on by.
I feel like I need to do something about that. But what? Well, aside from actually taking proactive measures and reading a classic every now and then. That would seem fairly intuitive. Assuming I've agreed with myself this is step one, what's step two?
Choosing, you say. Hmm. That makes sense. There was that list of the Guardian Top 1000 I started, then lost track of, last year. Quite a number of classics on that, if I recall correctly. The Modern Library has quite a list but then again what major publication doesn't. There's no valid reason I can claim I suddenly can't remember what the classics are or how to find them.
Because I've read at least one book by the majority of classic writers - not bragging, just saying what's true - the question is, do I re-read something I read too long ago to remember, another book by an author I've read or choose an author I missed and read something of his/hers.
Why must life be so annoying.
Let's assume I trot away now and choose something to try and that, once tried, I feel I could enjoy it enough to stick with it to the end. That brings us to step three: fitting a classic betwixt what I already read now. Here's where it gets sticky. Blimey.
It's all so hopeless.
What's in my best interest. That's all I should concern myself with. And that something, I believe in my heart of hearts, is to make an effort. A stab. At least a passing try at attempting one classic book. Nothing too demanding, maybe. Nothing too long. Something just right.
And that something is...!
Honestly, I don't know. But I feel a lack, a wee prickle of guilt I left my classics education behind me. I feel a prickle of guilt for so many reasons - a huge wave for others. Can't do something about all my regrets but I have to keep hoping for change, or what's the use?
A title. I need a title. And a plan. Something as easy as a chapter a week, maybe. A chapter read electronically, since I sit down to this foul beast once a day most days. Not every classic has chapters of a bazillion pages; a few must be doable. Right? And all I need is one of them, for now. Something to oil the gears in my mind that have ground to a complete halt.
Short. Not too demanding. Enough to give me a sense of accomplishment. That's all I ask. My source? In this case, a quick Google got me a long list of short classics. Going rapidly down the list, eliminating each for one reason or other, I stopped at:
I haven't read it. Other books by Cather I have read are My Antonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Antonia I've read multiple times; Death I've yet to re-read, though I was assured it would mean more to me when I was older. And now I'm older.
But A Lost Lady. It seems appropriate, almost poetically so. It's free at Project Gutenberg. Best of all? The chapters are amazingly short.
I can do this. In and amongst the rest of my life, I can do this.
Willa Cather. A Lost Lady. Short and sweet. Just what I need right now.