Tue 24 Feb 2015
by Sarah Crysl Akhtar
Lucky for me, my best friend’s mother was a librarian, and I liked her, so reading recommendations from that household were nontoxic to me. I did learn to love some of the Brontës before I got out of school.
But I couldn’t stand Dickens. Even then, I had a strong allergic reaction to the sentence containing 350 words when it only needed twenty. Later, it all became clear. If you’re paid by the word, economy ain’t your mantra.
Many, many years later, someone gave me a partial set of those Great Books for the masses that ate up a lot of trees in the first half of the twentieth century. And desperate for something to read one grim afternoon, I finally picked up Dickens’ A Child’s History of England. It seemed to be the least awful choice.
I loved it.
With the simplicity of a father explaining universal concepts to his children while tucking them into bed, Dickens made us understand the extraordinary gift of the English to the world—the concept of Common Law, to which even the monarch was subject. The courage of people who had little but that hunger for justice and fairness, struggling against the powerful who had every imaginable weapon to use against them—this was one of the most thrilling stories I’d ever read.
I still hate Great Expectations. But Dickens—a little less so. And I wonder how he’d have written those novels if financial considerations hadn’t so influenced his prose.
You can find plenty of naked potentates shivering their way through the art and literature universe. And plenty of mockery for the person who says “I don’t know nuthin’ about art, I just know what I like.”
Well, I don’t know nuthin’ about music, and I’m as close to being innumerate as anyone can be who still manages to balance her checkbook. But I don’t need an understanding of complex mathematical structure to be able to love Bach. His genius was to compose music, so sophisticated in form that it seems like an instruction manual for the creation of the universe, yet expresses universal human emotion. Something, as they say, for everyone.
Do scholarly explanations of his achievement enhance my enjoyment of Bach? Not really. I can’t understand them. I already feel how much that music contains.
And I know why I don’t like Chopin. Pathetique indeed!
I’m neither a barbarian nor a cognoscenta. I just trust my own taste.
Do I enjoy learning more about an interesting text? Yes, and I’ll read both the afterward and the foreward, afterwards.
It’s helpful to have a guide to a written work that may contain possibly-obscure wordplay and cultural references; whose plot and character motivations require an understanding of cultures or historical events or timeframes we may be unfamiliar with; we might miss the hilarity if we don’t understand an in-joke, or not comprehend the insult if we don’t realize the import of passing a piece of bread with one hand, or the other.
But sometimes an academic’s analysis seems intended to kick all the joy right out of the reader’s hand.
My copy of Pride and Prejudice is so fragile now that I really shouldn’t touch any page I don’t actually need to read. But one evening, drunk with recklessness, I pushed past “The End.”
Talk about a wrong turn!
You’d never have believed, after plowing through that learned afterward, that Jane Austen had a lively sense of humor, a fine eye for the ridiculous, and that the book was, in fact, a hilarious skewering of class pretensions, the devaluing of women as individuals and the idiocies of British inheritance law.
Thank God that these days the common man has the internet. In those dark lonely hours when you doubt your own judgment, you can find comfort and validation as you discover that even some sophisticates didn’t like Hemingway or thought Gertrude Stein was full of sawdust. That there are, in fact, varied, sometimes contradictory opinions about every work of literature, and you needn’t feel ashamed of your own.
Tastes are planted, nurtured and shaped; they’re informed by our life experiences; what makes us cry at fifteen might make us laugh at fifty. That boring paperback you tossed away at twenty might really seem to contain the secret of the universe when you read it as a grandparent.
But all of us have strong instincts that can smell out the fraudulent beneath the fashionable, or truthfulness wrapped in an unspectacular package.
Don’t be afraid to decide for yourself what’s “good.”
Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable—the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared onEvery Day Fiction, Perihelion SF Magazine, 365tomorrows and Flash Fiction Online.)