Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Reacquainting Yourself with the "Classics"

By Steven Robert Allen

AUGUST 2, 1999:  So you want to reacquaint yourself with classic literature. Feeling a little rusty? Haven't picked up a book in a while?

Ever heard of a library, pinhead?!

All right. Unclench that fist. I'm only kidding. In the stress, grind and bustle of everyday life, feeding the dog, spanking the kids, driving on empty, it's easy to lose touch with the essentials. Believe me, I sympathize.

Literature -- a word I've always hated because it sounds like some kind of hideous, pus-oozing skin disease -- opens up big, fantastic worlds that everyone would do well to spend a lot of time exploring. Unfortunately, the doorways to these worlds can often seem inaccessible. The trick is to have no fear. Once you've had the good stuff, you won't likely want to settle for that trashy pulp they sell on the streets. You'll be much better off. Trust me.

The "classics" is a term used mainly by old ladies who teach junior high school English. It basically refers to books that have held up under the assault of time. Although it's possible that a book written yesterday will change your life forever in deep and profound ways, it's difficult to select new titles.

The "classics," on the other hand, are those books which have held up, to greater or lesser degrees, under long years of intense scrutiny. Certainly there are old lauded books that wank, just as there are old works of genius that have been forgotten or vanished entirely. Reading is always a gamble, though, and if you want to play the game with decent odds, then you've got to go for the stuff labeled MASTERPIECE on the cover in big, bloody red letters.

Here's a short, arbitrary selection of titles by a few dead white guys, along with my suggestions for the best place to dive in to their work.

The best entry into Feodor Dostoyevsky is Notes from Underground, sometimes translated Letters from Underground or Napkins from Hell. It's sweet, funny, black and contains most of the brilliancies for which this rabid Russian is famous. From there you can springboard into the thickies, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov, etc., and you'll be better prepared and much the wiser.

The first William Faulkner book you should swallow is As I Lay Dying. Difficult as all Faulkner is difficult. Gorgeous as most Faulkner is gorgeous. Savor it slowly, and you will understand. Next I'd go for Light in August and only then dive into The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom and the rest of those Southern spectaculars.

After seeing the humiliating rape of Alice in Wonderland on network TV a while ago, I have to recommend that you cleanse your mind of that filth with a quick read of the book. Unlike the idiotic TV version, there is no cuteness or morality here. This book is the kind of purely imaginative nonsense that makes you grateful for Euclidean geometry and manual typewriters. Sure, Lewis Carroll took pictures of naked young girls as a hobby. So what? He was also a rare, gifted genius who created one of the wickedest, funniest, most horrific tales of all time.

In my opinion, the only place to start with James Joyce is to read the short story "The Dead," possibly the most beautiful story ever written. It's a little embarrassing to admit this, but I cry every time I read it. I'm so sensitive, aren't I? Joyce's experimentalism got wackier with age. Follow "The Dead" with Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Only then should you tackle Ulysses, Joyce's walloping masterpiece describing everything about a single day in the life of Dubliner Leo Bloom. Joyce took 20 years or so to write Finnegan's Wake, his final work, but only freaks read this monster. It's largely incomprehensible.

Finally, I'll put in a plug for a "classic" that doesn't get mentioned nearly enough. That's right, you heathens. The Holy Bible. Find yourself a translation you're comfortable with (I recommend a study version with copious notes), and go at it with hatchet and tweezers. Genesis, of course, is the ideal place to start. From there you can skip around at will. The Book of Job, Ezekiel, and the hallucinogenic Revelations are perennial favorites, but there's pretty much something for everyone.

I'm leaving out dumploads more, but these should keep you frothing for a while. Ask around. Talk to people. Hold up a sign and tell the world you want to be changed. Before you know it, great books will be falling like manna from above.

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