A few months ago, I purchased a set of the Harvard Classics, also known at as the five-foot reading list. When the books are stacked, they are five feet tall. So far I have read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, and the Dialogues of Plato. There are 50 books all together but well over a hundred titles that fill the volumes.
There are two books that cause me to cringe when I think about reading them. The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith and The Origin of Species by Darwin are some of the longest titles in the series and could be some of the dullest reading I will ever experience. Did Adam Smith consider how to make economics fun when he wrote his book, I doubt it. Stuck on a boat in the Pacific Ocean would be the best place for someone like Darwin to write about some birds out of boredom and accidently write a classic.
I always hated required reading when I was in school but I will point out that having high school students reading old English isn’t the best way to introduce the classics or good literature for that matter. I could not stand The Scarlett Letter and As I Lay Dying was only readable to those who were familiar with southern white trash. I met some of these characters later in life and had moments where I thought “oh I get it now.” I remember thinking to myself that no one could be that dumb and then life proved me wrong. As for the Scarlett Letter I saw more than my fair share of affairs over the years and the only thing missing was the culture of shame that didn’t exist. This kind of behavior had become a new normal in certain work environments.
In order for a great book to have staying power it has to be written in a way that it will hold up a hundred years after it was written. I often think about Gatsby for an example of this, having known men to fake their lifestyles in order to attract women who were not really into them. Since the Harvard Classics were printed in 1909 Gatsby is not on the list along with all the other classics written during the 20th century. I’m sure I can find a list for those later on.
Some of the classics I am having a difficult time with include poetry and plays, something I always considered separate from literature. I can think of a handful of writers who were successful play writes during their lives, A.A. Milne, Tennessee Williams, and Oscar Wilde all paid their bills by writing plays and having them be a success in the local theaters. For most of these men their fame was later remembered from other literary works like The Picture of Dorian Gray and the Winnie the Pooh series.
When I recently read The Inklings by Humphrey Carpenter, I learned how Tolkien and Lewis used poetry as a mental exercise for writing. Publishing such works was still common and people could make a living at it if they had talent. These days the readers don’t exist and writing such things is viewed at the intellectual version of writing rap lyrics in the ghetto, except less successful. While I say all of these horrible things about poetry I will admit there is an advantage to those who do it. It will expand vocabulary as you search for the right word for a line. There is a sense of rhythm that is missing from todays books and the only writers who still have this skill are slowly dying off. The symbolism and descriptions used in poetry is something that is missing from todays books. When a person writes a line such as “that morning he was dehydrated and his pee was the same color it would be an hour after taking a multivitamin” they could use a course or two of poetry.
I will eventually read The Wealth of Nations but I will always have in the back of my mind knowing that Smith lived with his mother, without a job, and was catered daily by her as he wrote. He was living the life of royalty with a serf caring for his needs while writing about capitalism. It would be like Ron Jeremy writing a book about celibacy and having it become a huge hit. The most interesting thing about Adam Smith’s book is that it is regarded as the standard for economics, and it would appear he was very bad at it and this was the only beacon of success he had in his life. I’m sure at some point an adult man still living with their parents, playing World of Warcraft or Minecraft, could write the next big book on relationships or personal responsibility. It could happen, I suppose.