Aside from old English majors like me, does anyone read for pleasure anymore?
When was the last time you finished an honest to goodness, full-length novel?
How ‘bout the last time you cracked open a bona fide Classic?
Or do you give credence to a famous quip by Mark Twain: “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read but nobody reads.”
To his point, how many of the following titles have you read, from school age to the present?
--The Great Gatsby
--Gone With the Wind
--The Grapes of Wrath
--The Catcher in the Rye
What do these six titles have in common? At one time or another, all of them were considered The Great American Novel. These books and many more have been labeled as such, none officially.
(New Paragraph) For my money, it would be Huck Finn, Samuel Clemens’ masterpiece. (Clemens was Mark Twain’s real name.) But I’m prejudiced, as I cherished it as an adolescent and decades later, I was one of the leads in Roger Miller’s Broadway musical version, Big River. I toured the country playing the comic villain “the King” for over a year. It was my best payday as an actor.
Clemens/Twain would also be my pick as the Great American Author, as he was the best storyteller of the 19th century—his prequel to Huck (how many books have a nickname?) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, was yet another Greatest Novel nominee--and he published lots of other fiction. I would also argue he was our first stand-up comic superstar, as the lectures he did world-wide were sold-out smashes.
His contemporary, the also celebrated William Dean Howells, called him “The Lincoln of our Literature,” and Ernest Hemmingway, no slouch himself, said “All modern American literature comes from Huckleberry Finn.”
Have I made you want to go to the library yet?
You probably have read To Kill A Mockingbird, because nearly every high school student in the nation was force-fed it, and its film version became a movie classic. The tale endures: a controversial adaptation is currently on stage in New York, starring Jeff Daniels.
Alas, the book’s author Harper Lee was betrayed in her dotage by her estate’s greedy executors, who exhumed an earlier draft called Go Set A Watchman and released it as a continuation. It sullied the book’s hero Atticus as a segregationist, even though the revised original made him a civil rights icon.
(New Paragraph) Many fans, myself included, felt just as betrayed as Lee, who swore after Mockingbird that she’d never write another novel. Please ignore the “sequel,” and stick with the 1960 tome.
That might’ve been the last time the entire country embraced a single piece of fiction. And though the Book of the Month Club still exists, its influence doesn’t even come close to its stature in the 1950’s. We have too many other mediums competing for our attention.
Indeed, today’s noisy, distracting, fragmented, often profane media, coupled with our public schools’ de-emphasis of reading and writing, have conspired against curling up with a good book.
But here we are again at “Beach-Reading” time. Take an honored title off the shelf, or consult our editor Nina Ulloa’s Book Nook column, and help restore the Novel’s place in our Arts.