Sunday, July 25, 2010

Why Read Classics?

Queenie and I were talking at Arctic Circle last week (Both of us were on dates with our grandsons.) and Queenie mentioned that she was not excited about reading Frankenstein for next month's book group discussion. A woman had been eavesdropping on our conversation and interrupted us to say that she loved Frankenstein and that it was so different from what she had expected.

It got me thinking: What do we expect when we read a classic?

In July of 2006, Apple and I heard Shannon Hale speak at BYU's Symposium on Books for Young Readers. Shannon had a lot to say about classics and how they destroyed her reading enjoyment.

 She wrote this on her website:

"One tragic outcome of English classes, however, was I believed (and didn't question for some time) that the "classics" were the only good books around. I stopped reading for pleasure, choosing books that I thought were good for me but were often boring and quite depressing, and so soon fell out of love with reading. I didn't question the only-classics-are-good mentality for many years."

We don't want to destroy reading pleasure!

Should we discontinue teaching classics to high school students? Shannon Hale sure made a strong case for it.

Some argue that high school students are not experienced enough to appreciate the classics at their age.

Certainly I appreciated To Kill a Mockingbird much more when I read it as an adult than I did at age fourteen.

.And my son, Ben, was deeply moved by reading The Kite Runner his senior year.

  I don't think he would've gotten as much out of The Scarlet Letter.
(Okay, I used this image because so many people have told me that this is what they really read in high school.)

But I, for one, loved reading the classics in high school. And I'm grateful to belong to a book group that is not intimidated by them. Even when I find the book difficult to appreciate, as in The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James,

I get so much out of the discussion. (Thanks, Leggy, in this case.) I'm always glad I spent the time and energy to "understand" its value.

If we didn't teach Romeo & Juliet in school would Taylor Swift's "Love Story" have become a hit song?

(This video is  from the 1968 Zefirelli film for all of you who remember seeing it.) I think the boy who plays Romeo looks a bit like Zac Efron.

And if we didn't have the Taylor Swift song, we certainly wouldn't have Jon Schmidt's brilliant adaptation:

And teens around the country would not have been able to predict the ending of Letters to Juliet:

It's sweet.
If you haven't seen it yet, it is still at the dollar movie!

And we wouldn't have comic Anita Renfroe's version of Love Story, either, which would be sad. She always makes me laugh.

I could go on and on. . . .

The things we read, and hear and watch become part of the collective consciousness:

n. In Jungian psychology, a part of the unconscious mind, shared by a society, a people, or all humankind, that is the product of ancestral experience and contains such concepts as science, religion, and morality.

I find it interesting to try and understand why a certain piece of literature struck a chord during its day and why it has endured. In the future people may shake their heads while reading Harry Potter and Twilight, while asking why it had such an appeal for people of our day. Okay, there are people shaking their heads over it now, but you can't deny the cultural phenomenon.

I don't think we realize how many things we all "understand" because of something that was written and read/performed years and years ago.

Here are ten:

1. Siren song: the enticing appeal of something alluring but potentially dangerous. This came from Homer's Odyssey.

2. "Blood on my hands": to be responsible for violent injuries or deaths. This came from Shakespeare's Macbeth.

3. "I'd sell my soul to the devil": to accept immoral behavior in order to succeed. This came from the legend of Faust, most popularly in Goethe's Faust and Marlowe's The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus.

4. "It's all Greek to me": something that you say when you do not understand something that is written or said. This came from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.

5. An albatross: a symbol of bad luck. This came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

6. Doubting Thomas: someone who will not easily believe something without strong proof or evidence. I know that all of you are very familiar with this reference from the Bible.

7. Catch-22: a situation where one thing must happen in order to cause another thing to happen, but because the first thing does not happen the second thing cannot happen. This came from Joseph Heller's book by the same title.

8. Big Brother: a government or a large organization which tries to control every part of people's lives and to know everything about them. This came from George Orwell's 1984.

9. Scrooge: A mean-spirited miserly person; a skinflint. Another very familiar reference to a character from Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol.

And last but not least (returning to our previous discussion):

10. "Parting is such sweet sorrow.": Juliet is saying good night to Romeo. Their sorrowful parting is also“sweet” because it makes them think about the next time they will see each other. This is from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet.

So what do you all think about reading classics? Are they worth reading?

One parting quote:
"When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before."
-Clifton Fadiman, author of Lifetime Reading Plan

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Choices for 2011

August will be here before we know it, so I hope that you are all in deep consideration of your book choice for the coming year. Here are some places to go for help in case you are having some trouble:

Goodreads has a Best of Book Clubs list.

ReadingGroupGuides has a list of their most requested reading group guides.

ReadingGroupChoices has lists of favorite book group books. The favorite books of 2009 are listed here.

See what Amazon recommends here.

BookLust has a list of favorites.

FlashlightWorthy has 18 lists for book groups to choose from.

Here is LitLovers' list of favorites.

There is still time to find a book you would like to discuss.

Also, just a reminder that we have two classics coming up:

Frankenstein at Leggy's in August

and Les Misérables at Beau Cheaveaux's in September

Let’s Get Reading!

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Robert M. Pirsig

Robert M. Pirsig
Robert Maynard Pirsig was born on September 6, 1928 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is the author of the cult classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig's father, Maynard, taught at the University of Minnesota Law School from 1934 until retiring in 1970. He served as Dean from 1948 to 1955. Pirsig's mother, Harriet Marie Pirsig (Sjobeck), is of Swedish origin.

By the age of 9, Pirsig, a precocious child, already possessed an I.Q. of 170. He was promoted over several grades, and his lack of normal socialization, combined with a vexing stammer, made childhood difficult for him.

In 1943, Pirsig entered the University of Minnesota, where he struggled for the next two years with his classes. He was expelled in 1945 for failing grades, immaturity, and inattention to his studies. After traveling to Montana where he drifted aimlessly for several months, he joined the Army and served in Korea before returning to school, where he resumed his studies, concentrating on chemistry and philosophy. He received a B.A. in 1950 and enrolled in the University's School of Journalism two years later. He also attended Benares Hindu University in India, where he pursued knowledge about Oriental philosophy, although later references to his studies there cast doubt on how much he gained from the experience.

In September, 1953, Pirsig became co-editor with Nancy Ann James of The Ivory Tower, part of the University's literary magazine. James was an undergraduate journalism student who was married and still being supported by her parents. Pirsig and Nancy left school in the winter of 1953-54 and traveled to Reno, where she obtained a divorce. The two worked for a while as dealers in Reno's Nevada Club in order to capitalize a trip to Mexico, where Pirsig felt they could live more inexpensively while he tried his hand at writing professionally.

Pirsig and James married on May 10, 1954, and moved that September to Minatitlan on the Bay of Campeche for eight months. In May 1955, they returned to the states, where he pursued a variety of jobs. He returned to school and received his MA in journalism in 1958.

In the early Sixties, following a slow dance through hell with depression and mental illness that left him in and out of hospitals and treatment centers for more than two years, Pirsig had completed enough of his book entitled Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to begin sending it off to publishers. He received more than 120 rejection slips before the manuscript finally landed in the hands of James Landis, an editor at William Morrow. Landis responded positively, encouraging Pirsig to finish the book. Finally, in 1973, after several false starts and numerous discarded drafts, he turned the completed manuscript over to Landis.

Pitching ZMM before Morrow's editorial board, Landis said, "This book is brilliant beyond belief, it is probably a work of genius and will, I'll wager, attain classic stature." Morrow paid the author its standard $3,000 advance and published the book the same year to rave reviews.

In 1975, Pirsig and his wife bought a boat together and began taking sailing lessons. Naively, they planned a trip around the world. Two years later, Pirsig was living on the boat in England with a woman named Wendy Kimball. He wrote an article entitled "Cruising Blues and Their Cure" for Esquire magazine. It was about the stress of boredom and claustrophobia, living in close proximity with loved ones in the confines of a boat. The following year, he divorced Nancy and married Wendy. In 1979, his first son, Chris, who had played an important role in the development of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,was stabbed to death during a random mugging in San Francisco.

The following year, Pirsig moved his second wife back to the more familiar grounds of Minnesota, where they lived near his paternal grandfather until wanderlust struck once more. In 1984, the couple moved to Sweden, where Pirsig began work on his second book, Lila, which was published in 1991.

Pirsig created the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ) to explain in his books the connection between quality and morality to reality. Both of his books claim that the topic they are exploring cannot be precisely defined because of humanity's limited experience. ZMM in particular is an important work because it functions at several different levels:
  • as a history or summary of philosophy
  • as a reply to anti-technology movements
  • as an introduction to thinking in general
  • as a skeptical book, questioning everything from our language and education system to the scientific method
  • as a complaint of the low level of craftsmanship in modern trades
In his work, Pirsig has coined several memorable phrases that refuse to die. He said that his book was luckily successful because it happened to be a culture-bearing book, and he called the fields of metaphysics and philosophy the high country of the mind.

Pirsig and son

View photos of Pirsig's cross-country trip.

View a map of his path.

Now and Zen

A narration of a summer motorcycle trip undertaken by a father and his son, the book becomes a personal and philosophical odyssey into fundamental questions of how to live. The narrator's relationship with his son leads to a powerful self-reckoning; the craft of motorcycle maintenance leads to an austerely beautiful process for reconciling science, religion, and humanism.

Some of you have been having a difficult time with our June book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It might be helpful to read these questions first:

1. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is at once the story of a motorcycle journey across the country; a meditation on values and the concept of Quality; and an allegorical tale of a man coming to terms with his past. Discuss which aspects of the novel you found most compelling, and why.

2. Discuss Pirsig's Author's Note. What does he mean when he says "much has been changed for rhetorical purposes?" Is he saying the book is fact or fiction? How does his use of a first-person narrator make this a complex question? What is the relationship between author and narrator?

3. Discuss ZMM's epigraph: And what is good, Phaedrus, And what is not good -- Need we ask anyone to tell us these things? How does this query resemble a Buddhist koan -- a paradoxical or nonsensical question that emphasizes the process of meditating on the question rather than the answer? Why do you think Pirsig chose this excerpt to introduce the book?

4. At the beginning of their trip, the narrator and John have a conversation in which the narrator refers to education as "mass hypnosis," citing as an example the fact that Newton's law of gravity is nothing more than a human invention, as are laws of logic, mathematics, and ghosts. Why does this dialogue take place at the outset of the novel, as opposed to somewhere in the middle or the end of the trip? How is Pirsig preparing the reader for the novel's future scenes?

5. In setting out the topic for his Chautauqua, Pirsig compares the current consciousness to a stream overflowing its channels, causing destruction and havoc as it searches for new ones: "There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and 'best' was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, losing its central direction and purpose. . . . Some channel deepening seems called for." (p. 16). Can you explain this metaphor? What sorts of change is he referring to? What does he mean by "channel deepening?"

6. As a writer of technical manuals, the narrator decries the current situation in which the idea of who a man is has become separated from what he does.He claims that in this separation are clues to "what the hell has gone wrong with the twentieth century." How does this concept fit in to what you know of Zen Buddhism, which celebrates the oneness of the universe? Do you feel at one with your occupation? Explain why or why not. If not, what is keeping you from feeling connected to what you do for a living? Would you feel more satisfied, or be a better worker, if you did feel that connection?

7. The narrator divides human understanding into two categories: romantic and classical. Discuss the distinction between the two. How do you fit into either of these dichotomies? Give examples that illustrate the tendencies that make you, personally, either classical or romantic.

8. How does Pirsig introduce and develop the character of Phaedrus? Can you rely on the narrator to offer an accurate picture of Phaedrus's insanity? Do you think Phaedrus really was insane?

9. What do you think of the narrator's son, Chris? Does he seem troubled, or merely a typical boy impatient with his father's behavior? Who do you think is a better father to Chris -- Phaedrus or the narrator?

10. Why do you think the narrator refuses to complete the trek up the mountain, despite Chris's disappointment that they won't be reaching the top? Is the threat of a rock slide real? Is he afraid to "meet" Phaedrus? Is he making a statement about ego relative to Zen philosophy? What is happening in the Chautauqua at this point in the book?

11. Discuss the climactic scene --- a confrontation between Chris and the narrator that takes place on a foggy cliff overlooking the ocean. Where is Phaedrus? What does this scene reveal about all three characters? How does this scene change your interpretations of the events that have lead up to it? What is the significance of Chris and his father removing their helmets for the remainder of the journey?