This weekend, my husband and I sniffled our way through the movie Les Miserables. By this, I mean the musical version; I've already seen the Fredric March/Charles Laughton version and the Liam Neeson/Uma Thurman version, and managed to remain dry-eyed and unmoved. Certainly neither of those prompted me to take the drastic step that I finally succumbed to yesterday: I plunked down my $2.99 on Amazon and downloaded the entire, unabridged translation to my Kindle.
It was a struggle with my conscience -- a struggle to admit that, at long last, I was tempted -- even though I have come to understand that Les Miserables is not so much a book as a multi-volume encyclopedia! It was a struggle, because I've always been prejudiced against this book. I've harbored an antipathy toward it since 6th grade, when my teacher, for reasons that elude me to this day, decided to read it to us.
To be honest, I don't remember much of the experience. I do remember that the volume she held was surely 1000 pages long (and even then, it was probably the abridged version). I remember snippets of scenes from the galleys [ships, not printer's proofs], and the incident of the kindly priest and the candlesticks. My recollection ends at Cosette and the stolen doll beneath the table. Most likely (or mercifully) I came down with a bout of flu and missed the rest, because when I first saw the movie, the whole bit about the barricades came as a complete surprise.
Now, I loved this teacher dearly and learned a great deal from her. She was a dedicated lady who had the same class for both 5th and 6th grades, and she truly believed in making us learn. But when she opened that book and sat down to read, I believe she did her classroom a grave disservice. Thanks to that experience, I've shunned Victor Hugo for 40 years.
Paging through the first chapter on my Kindle yesterday, I can certainly see why. What 11-year-old is going to be interested in a listing of the charitable contributions of a 19th-century French bishop? (That's how the story begins, by the way.) I don't recall knowing anything of the French Revolution by that age, nor did I know what a slave galley was or why French felons might be required to row one. These first pages present, with wry and subtle humor, a commentary on French culture and politics and history that, to put it mildly, would skim just a bit farther above a sixth-grader's head than the space shuttle.
But this kindly teacher was not alone. A year or so back, while working on my novel, I had occasion to look up Hamlet's soliloquy, which I had been required to memorize somewhere around 10th grade and done my best to forget thereafter. I read it again, scanning for a useful quote to put in the mouth of a character, and suddenly realized: "Hey, I get it now!" Hamlet is talking about life -- the difficulties in life that one recognizes at age 50, but (hopefully) has not even begun to experience as a preteen. (Emboldened, I went back to re-read Othello's soliloquy, which I'd also been required to memorize, and found, amazingly, that it made sense as well.)
In 9th grade, a teacher who was the embodiment of the white-haired, vague English professor set us to read a poem that I now realize was "Sir Patrick Spens." (See, I'd even blocked the name of that one -- possibly because the far more interesting event of seeing the teacher punched out by an intruding student distracted us...) What I recall chiefly here was the professor's annoyance with us all for not catching the fact that the lines "the new mune late yestreen, with the auld mune in her airms" was obviously a reference to adultery! Wow, how'd we ever miss that? (Even Wikipedia describes it as a weather prediction.) And what red-blooded American 9th-grader does not know that "cork-heel'd shoon" refers to the footwear of 13th-century Scottish nobility?
Today, I find that Sir Patrick Spens reads just fine, Shakespeare is starting to seem like a possibility, Dickens can be positively entertaining (if wordy), and the prospect of wading through 1472 pages of Les Miserables is not out of the question. (My Kindle adds a nice touch: It tells me that at my current rate of speed, this should take me 17 hours, which actually doesn't sound so impossible.)
But today, I am an adult -- an adult wondering why the education system consistently seems to believe that "classic literature" is meant for children. The authors of such literature certainly didn't think so. I doubt that Hugo had 10-year-olds in mind when he wrote Les Miserables; in fact, he had governments in mind. (Even if you never read the book, his searing letter to an Italian publisher about the universality of "misery" is well worth a look!) Romeo and Juliet may have been teens in love, but that doesn't mean Shakespeare was writing a Young Adult romance!
I suppose that educators imagined that if they didn't catch kids when they were a captive audience, those kids would never read the classics at all -- but I fear that the effect upon many of us was to ensure that we never dared read them again! And this reaction comes from a reader; you never saw me, at that age, without a book in my hand or my bag or my pocket. I shudder to think how such teachings affected the kids who shunned books on principle and considered the library about as inviting as the Bastille.
Today, I know it's trendy for educators to declare that the classics, or the works of "dead white males," are no longer "relevant" to students. But the sad truth is that they never were relevant to children and young adults, because they were not written for young people in the first place. Dickens wrote his novels not just to earn a living but to change the world. Hugo foresaw a 20th century in which war was a thing of history. Such tales have relevance only when the understanding of the reader is capable of grasping the intentions of the writer.
If you've loved classic literature all your life, my hat is off to you and I congratulate you. But if you are one of those who wondered "what on earth?!" when someone hit you with Patrick Spens, take cheer. You might just find that these classics are not only readable, but meaningful and entertaining. And as a writer, you may find in them a source of inspiration that was hitherto closed to you. For the richer we are in literary resources, the richer our books and our characters will be -- and the more we will enrich our own readers. There are reasons why "classics" survive for centuries -- and if we can grasp those reasons, we stand a far better chance of seeing our own works stand a similar test of time.