On Not Reading the Nineteenth Century Classics

By Jim Valvis


"Call me Ishmael. Some years ago- never mind how long precisely- having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off- then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me."

That’s not me, in case your lobotomy was successful. That’s the first paragraph in "Moby Dick" as written by Herman Melville and published in 1851. "Moby Dick" is one of the not too few books I’ve never read. The sheer volume I think frightens me. In that way, I am not unlike other modern readers. Anything that requires too much commitment on my part scares the beejesus out of me. No wonder we have a junk food culture. No wonder our marriages last ten weeks.

There are other great books I’ve never read. For instance, I’ve never "Madam Bovery" written by Gustave Flubert and published just five years after "Moby Dick" in 1856. I tried to read Madam Bovery once and got too sleepy to continue. I was on page three.

I’ve never read "The Tale of Two Cities" as written by Charles Dickens and published just a few years later in 1859. That too has a famous opening that everyone knows. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times—" Never read it.

Leo Tolstoy’s "War and Peace" was published ten years later in 1869, exactly one century before my birth. Never read that either.

Predating them all, but just by a little, was "Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte, published in 1947. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t read that one either, though it is a mere 465 pages.

In 1855 Walt Whitman published "Leaves of Grass" and then commenced to rewriting that one book, and adding to it, until his death in 1892. I’m happy to say I have read "Leaves of Grass," though I read it piecemeal, a poem here, a poem there. I’m sure I missed a couple. What right has any person to claim to be a poet and not be sure he has read the entity of "Leaves of Grass." He has no right at all.

What I’m getting at is this: I’m stupid. I’m a dolt. I’m a spoiled American cheeseburger eater. I don’t deserve to call myself educated, but I’ll bet odds are I’ve out-read you. I’d put those odds at 10,000 to 1. At least I’ve read some of "Leaves of Grass." I get to call myself literate only because everyone else is so illiterate.

And I’m also saying this: think of the time! Think of those great men and women turning out pages and pages and pages. They never bitched about writer’s block. They never ran off to a workshop. They never kept an online journal. They never had a computer with 32 MG Ram. They never bothered kissing an agent’s ass. They wrote, brothers and sisters, they wrote thick and great books, and who can be bothered now. Not me.

Jules Verne wrote "Around the World in Eighty Days" in 1873. Think about that. He considered that a windfall of speed. Eighty days. I’m guessing though because I’ve never read the book. Today, if we are so inclined and have enough yen, we could do it comfortably in less than three. Not much adventure in that however. Progress.

Another reason I’ve never read these books: they’re too much. Not just too many pages, although that too. No, I mean they wrote about big things, big eternal things. Seems like every writer now writes about little things. Maybe their gall bladder is convulsing or they’ve seen some crappy movie. That’s what the modern writer writes about and that’s what the modern reader reads. I know because I’m both, a modern writer and a modern reader. I’m also an asshole, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, I pick up these old books, hold them in my hands—and lordy! There’s bulk to them. There’s weight to them. I sweat just looking at them.

Imagine being alive back then, being alive then and being a reader of these books. Imagine that. I get Story magazine in the mail, the New Yorker, all kinds of poetry magazines. It doesn’t compare. We are nothing. We’re not even in the same ballpark. Nay, we’re not even in the same sport. We’ve come to play football wearing ballerina costumes.

Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevski wrote "Crime and Punishment" and published it in 1866. It’s about 800 pages long, a mere tune up for "The Brothers Karamozov," which is, if I remember correctly, about 1400 pages long. That’s discipline, brothers and sisters. That’s a writer. You think you’re a writer? You’re not a writer. Don’t feel badly—neither am I.

I read some of "Crime and Punishment" when I was in the army and stationed at Fort Sheridan, which is now defunct, eaten up by the cuts in the military in the early 1990s. Cut the fat, that’s our modern motto. Look at our models, our movie stars, our heroes. Cut the fat. Anyway, I read "Crime and Punishment" up to the part when he kills the old lady, which is near the beginning. I don’t remember the page. Somewhere around that time though I started flipping through the pages of the book, looking at the words, and I got awe struck. Such patience! Such endurance! All written with a quill pen. Dab the ink, write a word, dab the ink, write a word.

And let’s face it: they had the coolest names. I mean, Ralph Waldo Emerson and George Washington Carver and Fyodor Mikhail Dostoevski, even Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson. What form! Even their names filled the mouth. They weren’t the truncated studio names of today’s writers—Stephen King, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Danielle Steele, Larry Brown, Carol Shields, Thom Jones, Richard Bausch, Jim Valvis. No, their names had a holiness all their own, a real and pleasant place on the palate. Christ, even Kurt Vonnegut, who has the coolest modern name I can think of, save a few Latinos, dropped the Junior from his name when some bullshit agent told him he didn’t need it anymore.

A great and noble past we have. A venerable past, as they used to say. A little over a century ago great men and great women were doing great things. They wrote big books and they had big names. Now they are dead and their books sit ridiculously on dusty library shelves while idiots like me flip through the latest copy of Woman’s Day.

Call me Ishmael.