Me and Herman Melville are so over. After 298 pages of Moby Dick – that’s halfway through – I’ve finally called off the hunt for enjoyment. If I’d made it to page 300 that would have at least been some kind of landmark, a respectable point at which to give up. I didn’t want it to end like this…
Of course, we value the idea of being ‘well-read’. It’s a middle-class aspiration that signifies depth and resolve (I mean middle-class in the British, bourgeois sense). To be cognisant with the classics means you have scaled the heights of what is possible in literature; like the well-travelled, you have officially broadened your mind. And in our endlessly distracted 21st century lives, to read the classics is to invest time and commitment in accessing older, time-tested sources of wisdom.
That’s all very well, but who decides what the classics are?
Since the early 20th century, reading lists have been complied by academics in an effort to enshrine certain works as officially great, influential and important. Known as the Western Canon, this list consists of all the poetry, novels, and plays you might expect, but has also been criticised for overshadowing the works of women and people of colour.
However, this is not my primary problem with the classics, but the round about way of saying things that predominates; both for the characters and the authorial voice. For all the seductive poetry and wierdness of Moby Dick, the prose all too often makes me feel as through I’m wading through treacle:
“Nor, perhaps, will it fail to be eventually percieved, that behind those forms and usages, as it were, he sometimes masked himself; incidentally making use of them for other and more private ends than they were legitimately intended to subserve. That certain sultanism of his brain, which had otherwise in a good degree remained unmanifested; through those forms that same sultanism became incarnate in an irresistible dictatorship. For be a man’s intellectual superiority what it will, it can never assume the practical, available supremacy over other men, without the aid of some sort of external arts and entrenchments, always, in themselves, more or less paltry and base.” (Melville, Moby Dick)
Did people actually talk like that? I know it was written in the mid-1800s, but trying to disentangle each sentence drives me crazy. I get frustrated with these canonical books, then I feel stupid; because if they are officially so great but I don’t enjoy them then there must be something wrong with me.
That’s why it was a relief to realise that I have my own canon – a body of works that excites me and makes me salivate for more. It comprises all the books that came out the US counter-culture in the second half of the twentieth century, encompassing everything that made the 60s shimmer with ideas, exploration and arguament, from Catch 22 to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It starts with the Beats in the 50s – Kerouac, Ginsberg and Buckowski and stretches to drug tales like Trainspotting in the 90′s (it doesn’t have to be American)
My favourite writer of any kind is the late music journalist Lester Bangs. He knows exactly where I’m coming from:
“I would rather write like a dancer shaking my ass to boogaloo inside my head, and perhaps reach only readers who like to use books to shake their asses, than to be or write for the man cloistered in a closet somewhere reading Aeschylus while this stupefying world careens crazily past his waxy windows toward its last raving sooty feedback pirouette.” (Lester Bangs)
For more on the literature of the 60′s counter-culture, visit Erich Ruppert’s excellent blog
Originally published on Tom's Blog.