Smokler's essays on the classics - witty, down-to-earth, appreciative, and insightful - are divided into ten sections, each covering an archetypical stage of life - from youth and first love to family, loss, and the future. The author not only reminds you about the essential features of each great book but gives you a practical, real-world reason why revisiting it in adulthood is not only enjoyable but useful.
Can The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn help you cope with aging? What does To Kill a Mockingbird have to say about being a parent? How about Fahrenheit 451 on not getting stuck in a crappy job? Practical Classics gives you an incentive to reread and a reason why.
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PRACTICAL CLASSICS50 REASONS TO REREAD 50 BOOKS YOU HAVEN'T TOUCHED SINCE HIGH SCHOOL
By Kevin Smokler
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2013 Kevin Smokler
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE MIDLIFE CRISIS OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN
Mark Twain was forty-one years old when he began work on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He had a wife, three children, and was about a dozen books into his career. He'd been famous for over a decade and largely wrote Huck during summers at his sister-in-law's farm, where an octagonal writing studio had been built especially for him. He led a comfortable and contented life but struggled for eight long years to give Huck Finn, a supporting player in one of his earlier books, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, a starring role. Nearly fifty years old when he finished Huck, Mr. Twain had spent the first decade of his middle age on the novel now credited with inventing our archetypes of American boyhood.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in the winter of 1885 but takes place, like Tom Sawyer, a good half century before that, in the pre–Civil War, pre-industrial Missouri where the author grew up. The year before Huck arrived, Twain had completed his first memoir, Life on the Mississippi, about his service as a riverboat captain when he was a young man in his twenties. A spell of nostalgia had likely seeped into that eight-sided room. And since we typically join Huck's adventures as kids or in high school English class, we probably remember those adventures now under that same spell—as Mr. Twain's love letter to childhood and an America from long ago.
That way of looking at Huck Finn—as boyhood tale and song of a more innocent nation—is very true, but like many of Twain's own fables and folktales, it is true as much in spirit as in fact. Rereading Huck Finn reminded me that it's a book as much about hard lessons as it is about carefree summers, a quiet affirmation of maturity as well as a celebration of youth. Raft adventures on dangerous rivers and the loyalty of friends are nostalgic crack. But holding fast just under Huck's brisk pacing are truths applicable long after we've traded fishing poles and corncob pipes for mortgages and job interviews. And if we ask classics to keep offering gifts even while we change and they don't, then this contested "Great American Novel" is inarguably one of our most generous. Mark Twain did indeed write Huck Finn looking back, but he wanted us to read it looking forward.
Even if you haven't read Huck Finn in a long time, you can empty your pockets of its images right now—Huck and Jim on a raft pointed southward on the Mississippi; darkly comic standoffs with con men and criminals; an opening pronouncement that the reader "don't know me, but that ain't no matter"; and a conclusion at which point Huck must choose between "civilis'ation" and "lighting out for the territory." Clifton Fadiman wrote that "Huckleberry Finn is our Odyssey," America's epic poem to itself, which seems about right. The novel is structured as a journey—as timeless as Homer, Don Quixote, or The Wizard of Oz—and Huck's torment over the stability of home and clean clothes versus a wilder, unblemished America beyond the next river bend describes exactly the torment of the American soul since the country's founding. Is America a country of CEOs in great cities or of cowboys on Great Plains? Of grown-ups with responsibilities and delayed desires or children with dreams and wide-open spaces where we chase them?
The latter sounds a lot more fun, but read five pages from Tom Sawyer and realize that fun is a lot of what Mark Twain left out in the sequel. The world of Tom Sawyer is whitewashed fences, schoolboy crushes, and hunts for buried treasure. The world of Huck Finn (also the fictional St. Petersburg, Missouri, probably just a few years later) is abusive fathers, human bondage, and murderous family feuds. If this is our nation's past, Twain seems to be saying, it seems a violent, dangerous place. We might miss it, but do we want it back? Isn't it better that both we and it have grown up?
This metaphoric tug between the innocence of youth and the self-knowledge of adulthood has made Huck Finn a subject of argument since its first birthday. The book was gloriously reviewed in Europe and trashed in America, where critics found its prose vulgar and its aspirations overblown, and they thought Huck was an irresponsibly drawn hero for children. Louisa May Alcott, who had written soft-core pornography before Little Women, scolded, "If Mr. Clemens cannot think of something better to tell our pure-minded lads and lasses, he had best stop writing for them."
But that was only the beginning of the book's troubles. For over a century, Huck Finn has remained one of the most banned books in America, censured by school boards, libraries, and entire towns. Early on, the complaint was that Huck was a bad role model for kids. Following the book's canonization as a Great American Novel in the 1950s and during the civil rights movement a decade later, Huck Finn became Exhibit A in the discussion of whether Mark Twain had grappled with slavery as a defining issue in our nation's history or had chickened out by dressing up race in the boyhood rags of loyalty and friendship. With Toni Morrison being pro-Huck and Jane Smiley against—as just one example—the case of Huck Finn continues to divide American literature to this day.
Whether Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a progressive or racist book is only one, tired way to read it. I prefer to imagine that Twain saw his novel not as an attempt to undo the terrible, tangled mess of racism but as an acknowledgment of how deeply racism is a part of us and the challenge that presented for a nation coming into its own. If a teenage boy is so tormented over even a basic understanding of bigotry and prejudice—two decades before Appomattox and the Fourteenth Amendment—how difficult it must be to confront these old fears and intolerances as adults. Whatever the result, Twain says, we must try.
There's something equally readable about Huck Finn among both high school students and adults, thanks to crucial choices Twain made in relying on his best approximation of an assortment of American vernaculars—Southern working class, African American, Creole—for the characters instead of using more Eurocentric, "literary" prose, which was the fashion at the time. It has been overstated that, with Huck Finn, Mark Twain was the first writer to speak to Americans in a voice they heard each day, even if James Fenimore Cooper had addressed many of Huck's central themes a good half century before in his novel The Last of the Mohicans. But Cooper's writing is tangled, opaque, like freeing oneself from a wet raincoat. Huck Finn is divided into short chapters so focused on plot that, in several instances, what happens stands alone and adds nothing to the greater story. Combine that with prose that feels like conversation instead of a sermon, and you can glimpse why Huck Finn did for American literature what Bob Dylan would do for American popular music: elevate it to art by making it more essentially itself. We read Twain much more today than we do Cooper, with both young and middle-aged enthusiasm, in large part because he is more fun.
It's fair to say that, without Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the entire genre of "road movie" or "road novel," an odyssey through America doubling as a journey of maturity and understanding captured by the seminal work of Jack Kerouac or films like Barry Levinson's Rain Man, might not exist. The mythic America shot through the music of Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen owes a great deal to Twain. It's also difficult to imagine the Southern tradition of folk humor handed off first to Flannery O'Connor and, much later, to Roy Blount Jr. and comedian Jeff Foxworthy, without Mark Twain. That Huck Finn itself seems resistant to adaptation (none of its two dozen film versions are memorable, though the 1985 musical Big River does an adequate job) corroborates that its true legacy is as much in its disciples as its descendants.
As teenagers we will probably get assigned Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in school and return to the same old battlefields of youthful innocence and the wake-up call of racism. As adults, we should reread it to see both how far we've come and how the challenges of our young life may haunt us still. Huck Finn is a boy's story that endorses adulthood, effectively saying, Aren't we better for having grown up, gotten older, and learned a thing or two? I recommend it often to chronically worried parents of teenagers. Huck Finn, based on real-life boys from Mark Twain's childhood, lived in scarier, more treacherous times than our families ever will. If Mark Twain was any example, they turned out just fine.
Excerpted from PRACTICAL CLASSICS by Kevin Smokler Copyright © 2013 by Kevin Smokler. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Youth and Growing Up
1 The Midlife Crisis of Huckleberry Finn 19
2 Candide Says Relax. Then Get to Work 24
3 A Separate Peace and the Dream of Best Friends Forever 29
4 Owners of Our Lonely Hearts 34
5 How the Uncaged Bird Sings 40
Part 2 Identity
6 Real Indians Play Rock 'n' Roll 49
7 The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Yours and Mine 54
8 Edith Wharton: "Innocence Is for Wimps" 59
9 The Us Yet to Come 64
10 Am I a Man or an Android? 68
Part 3 The Inner and the Outer World
11 If This Library Is Paradise… 75
12 Staying Out of the Bell Jar 80
13 You May Find Yourself Trapped in 86 Alexander Portnoy's Head … 86
14 Cannery Row: Where Everybody Knows Your Name 91
15 My Favorite Book of Them All 96
Part 4 Love and Pain
16 Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen for the Clumsier Sex 103
17 Marriage Counseling from Henrik Ibsen 107
18 .Eyes on Love 112
19 I've Been Young and Afraid, Joyce Carol Oates. Thank You for Asking 117
20 The Scarlet Letter: I Don't Like It Either 122
Part 5 Working
21 Bartleby in the Breakroom 129
22 The Work/Life Balance of Sherlock Holmes 134
23 Working at Relaxing with David Foster Wallace 141
24 At the Office with "Master Harold" … and the Boys 147
25 Burning Books: One Crappy Job 151
Part 6 Family
26 Why To Kill a Mockingbird Makes a Great Father's Day Gift 157
27 The Ambivalent Family of Toni Morrison 161
28 Of Won tons, Mahjongg, and Time 166
29 A Family of Giant Insects 171
30 Maus: A Comic Book about Fathers, Sons, and Genocide 176
Part 7 Ideas and Learning
31 The Renaissance Nerds of The Phantom Tollbooth 183
32 Camping It Up with Susan Sontag 188
33 "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Walter Benjamin Kevin Smokier 194
34 Hello, I'm William Shakespeare 205
35 Understanding Marshall McLuhan 210
Part 8 Violence and Loss
36 Holden Caulfield, That Little Brat 221
37 Albert Camus, the Unsexy Stranger 229
38 Shirley Jackson's Rituals of Violence 234
39 The Stone-Faced Trip of Slaughterhouse-Five 239
40 An Act of Violence, a Book of Forgiveness 244
Part 9 We The Hero
41 The Shameless Case of Walt Whitman 251
42 Emily Dickinson's Lessons for Success 256
43 Little Heroes and Locust 263
44 Visit Tinker Creek. Then Keep Going 268
45 How to Tell a Hero Story 272
Part 10 The Future
46 Beware of Revolutionaries Who Look Like Pigs 279
47 Meet Thomas Pynchon, Your Driving Companion 284
48 The Remains of Tomorrow 289
49 Four Different Ways That Things Fall Apart 293
50 A Letter 299
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Not your momma's idea of a list of classics but intriguing none the less. Fifty authors often included on high school bound-for-college reading lists appear in Smokler's list. Each entry offers his thoughts on the selected title and often includes comments on other titles by the author. Included are standards: Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Edith Wharton and Shakespeare; but also for your enlightenment Sherman Alexie, David Foster Wallace and Norton Juster. Even if he doesn't move you to reread, or even read for the first time, fromhis list, his thoughts on each of the authors and their works are well worth your time.
This book gave me all I needed to know to become a better student, thinker and future productive citizen. Great summer reading list! From a High School Junior
I really enjoyed this book. The casual style, humor and insite to the books/aurhors included kept me engaged and encouraged me to give a few of those classics a second look with my adult eyes and experience. The author helped me to add to my "must read" list. Well done. Strongly suggest. L Jarrell - VA