The Classics

So, it's clear to me that reading those olde-tyme-books-of-yore is a dangerous business to my sense of myself as a parent. I try not to let it get to me. I do all sorts of reasonable things, like reminding myself that the mothers in those books didn't have to work outside the home, and they are being presented by their offspring (who don't want a lifelong family feud), and, oh yeah, they're fictional. But even so, sometimes one particularly awe-inspiring mother slips through and just gets me till I feel like I'm doing it all wrong.
Chestnut and I have gotten to Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown in the Betsy-Tacy series. The girls have turned 12, and Betsy has just acknowledged to herself and her family that she believes she is a writer. This is followed shortly by her mother's discovery that—gasp! She's been reading dime-store trash. One of her own first attempts is called Lady Gwendolyn's Sin.
Her mother doesn't get angry; she gets thoughtful (see, I'm already feeling bad, here, because when, given the chance, have I ever gone for thoughtful rather than angry?). She has a conversation with Betsy's father, the upshot of which is that they know that Betsy needs to read the classics if she's going to be a great writer, and so every other Saturday they are going to allow her to go downtown all by herself to the new library in town. She can stay there all morning, and they will give her 15 cents so she can go to the bakery and have lunch, then spend the rest of the afternoon in the library.
Could anything be finer?
The description of that first trip to library is so wonderful that you all ought to run out and read it right now. The library has a fireplace, and 15 cents at the bakery buys you a bologna sandwich on fresh-baked bread and an ice cream.
Oh, how I long to give my girls even one day in their lives of that sort of bliss.
But here's the thing: the classics. Is Betsy's mother right? Does it serve a writer better to read only Hawthorne, Swift, and Twain (all of which the intriguing librarian brings Betsy to start with), or is there worth (as I have always believed) in reading everything. Everything. The classics and junk and weak attempts and silly stories and romances and…everything.
I read one of Flannery O'Connor's essay in which she said that she knew she ought to have been more influenced by the great writers, but when it came down to it, everything she'd ever written could be traced back to days spent in her basement reading Edgar Allen Poe's Tales of the Grotesque. But then again, Poe is a great writer. Elizabeth Bishop compulsively read mystery novels. My house is full of Poke-dexes.
What's a mother to do?

13 thoughts on “The Classics

  1. A) Besty could have read the dime store novels at the library, right? It seems like in the independent library trip, her mother was giving her the opportunity to read more than was locally available. Now if the girl wants to read the classics, great. If she wants to read the stacks of newspapers, that’s good too. As a grad student in Literature, this discussion of the value of the classics invariably comes up and I side firmly in the middle. Yes, one should be exposed to what has formerly been conceived of as the Canon, but there is room for other literature as well. Great classics remind us how a well crafted story can be compelling, regardless of the time it was written. But modern works, even the poor-ish ones, can teach us too. My belief– give a burgeoning reader/writer a firm basis in mythology and classic story motifs and they will see those themes in everything they read after.


  2. I’ve read some “great” books and felt that it was an utter waste of time. And I’ve found some very profound insights and powerful messages in “trash.” I’ve always been a sucker for anything with magic in it, which doesn’t exactly scream classics. But it did lead me in the direction of E. Nesbit and “Charlotte Sometimes,” which were definitely acknowledged as classics. My brother was a very reluctant reader, but Stephen King opened the door to him; he just got his Master’s Degree (last week) and is a very happy reader!
    Calee makes a good point that what Betsy’s mom is really doing is providing her with an opportunity to read independently, for long periods of time, to lose herself in stories. And with the 15-cent lunch, she’s even saying good books (whatever kind of books they are) are a priority, worth setting aside time and money for.
    Certainly I’d rather my kids read “Danny and the Dinosaur” than “Pokemon.” But I’d rather they watch “Dragon Tales” than “Pokemon.” There are lots of reasons, but I’m not going to allow them to read or watch only things that I deem “classic”–though I will ban things that I think cross some kind of line.


  3. It depends what sort of writer one intends to be. Want to write modern day dimstore novels? Read Twilight and Danielle Steel and Dan Brown and the like–that’s all the research you need. Have aspirations of writing something timeless? Then you’d better have a healthy background in the classics, new and old. I think “everything” is for those who feel the vague itch to write without having any full sense of their voice or stories. Unfortunately, time is so finite, and “everything” is impossible, so it must eventually be narrowed down. It’s a good place to start, though. One can’t know or appreciate the best and the good without the bad and the in-between to serve as contrast. What sort of “everything” you land on just depends on your taste, I suppose.


  4. I think that you read EVERYTHING. Anything that grabs your attention is worth reading.
    Which is why I read everything from trash to classic to travel narratives to history to cookbooks


  5. I put my vote with EVERYTHING. Especially for young readers/writers. Kids need to have all kinds of writing exposure in order to try and replicate what they like the best. I am no writer, but I find value in reading all kinds of texts. Professional texts, classics, the newspaper, magazines, mysteries, fantasy, blogs, memoirs, all of it. It is possible that you like to read all kinds of things, but you specialize in writing one genre. But if you are really good in, say, writing fiction you might be asked to write something in a different genre for another audience. It would be good to be familiar with good pieces to help you, right?


  6. First: Thanks for a very thoughtprovoking and well-written blog about an undervalued literary category, namely children’s books. It’s nice to see it being taken so seriously, and yet written about with such a light touch. I also learn a lot about classic American books, which is a nice bonus for a Norwegian like myself!
    Second: I agree with Kendra – many so-called classics leave me cold, but the “unworthy” books can provide me with an image, an idea, or simply a great story that stays with me.That’s one of the things reading’s all about, isn’t it? And I also agree with several others posting here that a budding writer should read everything there is. Not least in order to be able to separate the trash from the good books later on in life. Who decides what’s trash and what’s not anyway…


  7. I believe in reading everything. In fact, Milton has a whole treatise about the value of reading everything, so it’s not a new idea. I think you can’t define what makes something good or bad unless you’ve been exposed to both. And remember, yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure. Charles Dickens was a writer of “trash.” Not even dimestore trash, but serialized magazine trash. And aside from Shakespeare, he’s probably the most taught author in English history. Read what you like, read what makes you happy and engaged and thoughtful.


  8. I’m gonna agree w/ pretty much everyone else…how do you know what’s good, or what you want to write, unless you’ve read at least a little bit of everything? As much of an avid reader I am, I’ve never been able to get into any of what most people consider to be “classics”…so I say, read what you like.


  9. I think everything is grist to the mill. How does one learn to recognize good writing if one never reads bad writing? One cannot just lean on labels (like “classic”) to guide what one will and will not think of as good, because, well, people are pretty perverse that way.
    And good writing appears everywhere. I picked up an E.L. Konigsburg recently and it blew me away. I honestly think she’d be winning huge literary awards (more than she has) if she wasn’t writing children’s lit, which the big bugs do tend to dismiss.
    I have a very strong belief that no one should be made to feel ashamed of what they read. That includes adults as well as children. No one is going around giving out points or gold stars for reading /this/ book and taking them away for reading /that/ one.
    I admit that certain books set my teeth on edge, but just because /I/ don’t like them doesn’t mean that they don’t have their audience and therefore, their purpose.
    I saw a poster in a library once about a reader’s “bill of rights” but the only bit I remember is the bit about being able to read what you like without being apologetic.


  10. I’m in the EVERYTHING category. Don’t forget that many of the books we call “classics” today were considered “popular” trash when it was written. So who knows what classics will emerge from our day and age 50 years from now.


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