September 16, 2005

Read The Classics

This was a running commentary I found in Writer's Digest Forum in the Internet about Oprah's Book Club. It's because in 2002 Oprah suspended her Book Club for she became disgusted with the politiking by publishers egging her to publish works by new authors in the hope of giving her imprimatur so as to create huge book sales. She was also unsatisfied with the quality of some of her recommended books- books which book critics often described as "shmaltzy" and too melodramatic.

So, she went into a 10-month hiatus after which she decided to bring her book club back- but with a mission. That mission is to promote the classics. By that she meant, Steinbeck's "East of Eden" (1.6 million copies sold after endorsement), Buck's "The Good Earth", and Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina." Because of this, a lot of people were split on whether to support her effort or denounce it as being a bane to contemporary literature. Her supporters say it's good for literacy while her detractors say it killed the chances for new authors to shine through. In my opinion, new authors don't like it because the "sense of entitlement" for Oprah's support has been lost. Better luck next time.

Below are two arguments why people should enjoy the classics as much as modern literature. All because of Oprah.

Date: 3/11/2003 3:19:31 PM
Written By: william adams
Subject: what value?

Why are these works invaluable? What value do they have for me or the typical American?

Will they help get me a job flipping burgers? They certainly won't help me get a real job.

What about the time they take from learning useful subjects? That can have a significant negative impact on our lives. Do you want our homeland defense people to be experts in classics or experts in stopping terrorism?

Why is a background in classics essential? For someone planning to teach them they might be. For the real world they are irrelevant. Isn't is a vicious cycle of abuse to learn classics just to teach classics to other victims so they in turn can teach classics to still more victims?

Classics are best read by retired people who do not need practical information and have time to read what they want to read for enjoyment (although very few would pick classics if there were a good beach novel handy).

Date: 3/11/2003 3:52:47 PM
Written By: Kim G.
Subject: Re: what value?

By my estimate, over 50% of Americans are functionally illiterate. (I taught entry-level college grammar ["This is a noun; this is a verb"] at a major state university, so I have some experience with this. Of 40 students who made less than a 15 on the ACT in English, I had 3 valedictorians and 20 more straight-A students.)

Literacy is crucial - reading is the most important subject a student learns in school. Because I read, I can teach myself international relations, basic accounting principles, biology or chemistry - even calculus. (I took calculus - I have yet to use it.)

Reading is the best way to improve grammar, vocabulary, and comprehension (in the spoken language as well as in the written). Reading is infinitely more interesting than memorizing vocabulary words, spelling, and diagramming sentences. I often learn new words through context, instead of having to grab my dictionary. Reading has taught me to think, to reason.

Why read the classics instead of some other genre of fiction or non-fiction? The classics provide us with an insight to different cultures and schools of thought that no other source can provide. History books are written by the conqueror. The classics were written by people who lived it.

I read Anna Karenina a couple of summers ago, and I learned more about Russian history and Russian thought than I ever learned in history class. If you think that a knowledge of Russian history is unimportant, think again. Russia's "no" vote in the UN is extremely important to this country right now. France's history, as I've learned it from reading A Tale of Two Cities and The Scarlet Pimpernel, speaks volumes on France's decision to oppose action against Iraq. International relations, including winning the war against terrorism, requires a detailed understanding of foreign culture, and the classics provide unique insight into understanding other countries.

On other fronts, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath teaches us about the Depression in a personal way that history books fail to achieve. Any Dickens novel will teach you about social reform and human rights. Austen and Eliot speak volumes about social history - the culture of the 19th century in England, including women's rights and roles. You get the same lessons on American culture from Hawthorne and Melville.

If more people read Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm or Bradbury's Farenheit 451, our current situation in America would be dramatically different. 1984 is startlingly prophetic and can show us that complacent democracy becomes socialism, and complacent socialism soon becomes communism. What more valuable lesson can Americans learn?

Will reading any of the classics help you get a job flipping burgers? Absolutely - you'll fill out the McD's application correctly, using proper grammar. You'll ace the interview too, because you're functionally literate.

Will it get you a better job than that? Will it help you earn the privilege of a college education? Undoubtedly - what a marvelous entry essay you'd write! You'd "wow" your professors with proper grammar - a rare trait in most college students.

The classics have their place, for students, retirees, professionals, and writers. I don't write for a living. I practice law, and my legal education and practice are greatly enhanced by my education in the classics.

Well, she spat out beautifully the reasons (practical and otherwise) why there is a need to rediscover the classics. For us Filipinos, there is a need to drive students to learn not only Western classics but also Asian and Filipino ones. Fortunately, we have a lot of good writers like Sionil Jose and Nick Joaquin, who are on their way in becoming Filipino classics, but sadly though, people here are more inclined to watch Kuba than to read their works.

I just hope we have an "Oprah" who will spark the same excitement for the classics and in that way, our functional literacy will increase. And perhaps when that time comes, we would be able to wrench this wretched nation of ours from the abyss of stupidity, ignorance and apathy.

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