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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Call and Response

I've written before about how I made it out of school without encountering a lot of the classics. One such book is "Jane Eyre." In fact, I had never read any of the Brontes until I read Charlotte's novel. I wonder if I can possibly express to you how deeply I got in to this book. I followed the characters. I was Jane. I loved Rochester. I was fully present in this novel and could barely put it down. But reflecting on it made me think about the appeal of the classics. What is the draw of the literary canon? Is it that these books are all just "that good" and have managed to stand the test of time? I rather doubt this as "good" is really subjective and I've read a great deal about how "Jane Eyre" is not a technically good novel (we don't have to go into why I disagree with that, do we?). I have a feeling that the more true answer lies in the canonical books as cultural touchtones.

Reading a book like "Jane Eyre" would be enjoyable in a vacuum. It is a good book on its own terms but more than that (for me, anyway) is being able to stake my claim in the novel's cultural landscape. I don't find that I get the same satisfaction in reading modern "it" novels as I do from completing a classic. I'm not as interested in the discussion surrounding the current ubiquitous titles. I wonder why that could be? I imagine it must have something to do with the history of the discourse. The classics have years of study and written response to them.

One way in which the classics have a cultural leg up on the front list is in parallel texts. I mentioned "Jane Eyre" specifically not only because I enjoyed it but also because I read it along with Jean Rhys 1966 novel "Wide Sargasso Sea." Rhys' novel is a modern response to Bronte's and tells the story of the other Mrs. Rochester. A direct literary response like this will not be found for a current popular title (books tend to take a while to write and such) and it can add so much to the earlier work. "Wide Sargasso Sea" is a feminist, anti-colonial look into Jane Eyre's world and it will make you look at the characters within an entirely different light. A close reading of a text will give you a look at the characters but to have someone else rearrange and re-imagine them can open doors of understanding that may have previously been closed. I definitely felt that way about these two novels (though nothing could put a damper on my irrational, romantic love of Rochester ... I admitted it was irrational!).

Flavorwire recently put together a list of 11 parallel texts that's worth checking out. Many of these have been added to my TBR pile. Anyone interested in taking over my bookstore duties? I just want to stay home and read this summer!

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