We all know those books. We’re assigned them in some English class, have heard of them before, know they’re well-regarded, and are probably mildly interested in them. And then we read them.
And we ask ourselves what exactly is going on. Why are these books remembered? What’s the big deal? There doesn’t seem to be much of anything extraordinary about these books, they’re just…books. They don’t seem to be life-changing, worldview-altering, or even mildly interesting. We’re left wondering why this is a book that so many people regard so well.
I read a book like this recently, and you’ve almost certainly heard of it. It’s called Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. I finished the Prologue and the first tale and was completely at a loss as to why I was reading this. I knew that there must be some reason this book was remembered, but I was genuinely clueless as to what that reason was. That’s when I remembered what W.H. Auden said.
He said, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”
It’s a simple quote, but it’s something that resonated with me. Even though I didn’t “get” Canterbury Tales, I knew that there were people that did–and when they got it they realized that this was a good book. Canterbury Tales is remembered, like all classics (at least according to Auden), because there is something quite worthwhile about it. So I gave it a chance. I kept reading it, and kept trying to figure it out. I went to class still with no idea as to what the point of it all was.
And I walked out of class knowing, at least in part, what Canterbury Tales was all about, and why it was remembered. The point of this post isn’t to analyze Canterbury Tales, so I won’t go into detail on that. It was such an interesting experience that it reminded me of something that Sam Koenen, a teacher, said when talking about how many people read books today.
“Modern readers judge a book within the first few paragraphs. More charitable readers might make it through a few chapters, but ultimately, if the book doesn’t justify itself to the read he condemns it as useless. The modern reader assumes that he stands as judge over the book. The book has to satisfy him, because it exists solely to benefit him. And for most modern readers, if the book isn’t immediately accessible and appealing, it’s trash.”
I’ve seen this as true in my own reading. I’ll be reading a classic, not get it, and assume that therefore there’s nothing there to get. What Koenen pointed out to me is that that is an incredibly impatient and arrogant way to view a book, especially a classic. Auden reinforces the point by assuring us that classics are classics because there’s something there. He assures us that we won’t be disappointed when we decide to give the book a shot. Combined, I think that what Auden and Koenen are telling us is that we should give a book a chance. Even if we don’t get it right away, or at all, we should still give it a shot.
It may take some time, it may take some discussion and some reading of other’s writings on the subject, but it will be worth it. Classics are classics for a reason, and I need to remember that.