“Classical” Literature

It seems to me….

Change is the principal feature of our age and literature should explore how people deal with it. The best science fiction does that, head-on.” ~ David Brin[1].

I’ve always enjoyed reading but never have adapted to reading a book in electronic form. While I accept the many advantages e-books have over hardbound books, there is something about the feel of an actual book that personally seems more comforting. Digital media’s electrons provide obvious benefits over static molecules that will only increase in the future so our generation might be the last who prefer their books in the form of physical matter rather than electronic bits.

When young, my preferred genre was fiction – especially science fiction: Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Larry Niven, and too many others to mention. It was a time prior to launching of the very first satellites into orbit; a time when paperback-novels only cost $0.25. The future remained full of possibilities and I would escape current reality to vicariously dwell in some unknown future. We might have had Flash Gordon but nothing comparable to Star Wars or Star Trek. While much of what I read is still considered totally impossible, nothing back then seemed beyond imagination. I found the world that might be preferable to what actually was.

The subject matter of reading assignments preferred by high school teachers and college professors, however, was oriented in the past: static, fixed, unimaginative – boring. I tolerated but rarely enjoyed them considering them to be a type of literature only possibly appreciated by literature majors.

My primary undergraduate major was physics (though I changed majors several times and my B.S. was in mathematics). My graduate degrees were in computer science (again with several other majors thrown in). Consequently, most of the reading in the academic and employed stages of my life became technical material related to whatever I was working on at the time. While not forgotten, too little time remained for escape into imaginative worlds. My primary motivation was to make that world of which I dreamed a possibility.

Now in retirement and once again free to indulge in whatever genre is appealing, much of the science fiction currently being written seemingly either lacks the imaginative quality prevalent in the past or it is me that has changed. Space flight is now a reality with plans for permanent colonies on Mars. My awareness of what is currently considered feasible also has increased perhaps jading my previous ready acceptance of that which greatly exceeds all valid scientific possibility. The science fiction genre now also includes fantasy which when young only included a very limited number of books on vampires or werewolves.

I, like the times, have definitely changed. Though I read as much as ever, my interests are heavily skewed toward current events and basic technical material. Perhaps I’ve also gotten lazy as I now normally prefer more general material devoid of the higher-level math I read throughout much of my working life.

Some time back I decided to reread some of the supposedly “classic” literature favored as assignments while in high school and college: Plato, Horace, Swift, Boccaccio, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Balzac, Whitman…. My conclusion after reading dozens of those pieces should perhaps not be surprisingly: while some are fairly good, the majority are as bad now as I found them to be back then.

University literature professors who publish anthologies to be inflicted upon English-101 students apparently primarily select works of interest only to others in their profession; namely other professors of literature. Their selections mostly are dry and of little interest to anyone outside their field. It should be of no surprise that most students required to take these classes consider them totally boring and normally never read those selections again.

Granted, essentially all the material I read is either a translation or extremely dated (and I read them as literature, not history) so it is somewhat unfair to express such a blanket judgement but I feel it is correct that the vast majority of what now is considered to be a “classic” never would be read today if it appeared newly-written on a bookstore shelf. Even Beowulf is boring – the plot is weak and without sufficient character development – as is equally true for The Nibelungenlied.

This is not to imply that I did not find some of the material enjoyable. Some written in ancient Greece; e.g., Homer’s Iliad, Aeschylus’s Agamemnon; were quite good as was Dante’s The Divine Comedy, but then there is Voltaire’s Candide which is not only boring but also poorly written. And who really cares about a monotonous run-on diatribe of someone stealing a clipping of a woman’s hair in Pope’s Rape of the Lock? Many other authors fail to fare any better: Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene….

Other authors get a very mixed review: Shakespeare for example. Everyone deservedly admires Portia’s speech “The quality of mercy is not strained…” from the Merchant of Venice or the lines “To be or not to be…” from Hamlet. Several other of his works; e.g., Comedy of Errors or Two Gentlemen of Verona; I would not recommend to anyone.

Perhaps it is not only me that has changed. Much about the entire world is now very different. Perhaps much classical literature no longer can be appreciated in an age of accelerating discovery. We live in an exciting age; perhaps our literary preferences must reflect life as we know it. The volume of literature being published today greatly exceeds publication rates of the past. Given that volume, not only are there vast quantities of mediocre publications but also an increasing quantity of what in the past would have been considered exceptional.

Though much classical literature actually is very good, so is much of the literature currently being written. My favorite work of fiction remains Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien which I have read several times. My early preference for space has not been totally forgotten: The Martian by Andy Weir was excellent fiction but the non-fiction Failure Is Not an Option by Gene Kranz is a reminder of how far we have progressed. If I was to recommend any non-fiction, it probably would be Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond but given the many exceptional options, it would be difficult to choose. While I personally might prefer the realm of “what might be”, I’ll still settle for “what is” rather than “what was”.

I readily admit to fairly plebian preferences favoring Gilbert & Sullivan to most opera or ballet (and, if given the option, would greatly prefer walking through some remote wilderness area). It probably is me, and anyone is welcome to disagree, but there undoubtedly are many others with similar literary tastes.

Reading remains enjoyable and I always will anticipate reading all types of literature, including many of the classics I’ve just denigrated, and encourage others to do the same. There is so much in life and the world that cannot be experienced in any other way.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[1] Glen David Brin is an American scientist and award-winning author of science fiction.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Aeschylus, Agamemnon, and Steel, Andy Weir, Arthur C. Clark, Ballet, Balzac, Beowulf, Boccaccio, Browning, Candide, Cervantes, Classics, College, College, Comedy of Errors, Computer Science, Computing, Dante, Divine Comedy, Don Quixote, E-Books, Education, English, English-101, Entertainment, Failure Is Not an Option, Fiction, Fiction, Flash Gordon, Gene Kranz, Germs, Gilbert & Sullivan, Greece, guns, Hamlet, High School, Hiking, Homer, Horace, Iliad, Isaac Asimov, J. R. R. Tolkien, Jared Diamond, Keats, Larry Niven, Literature, Lord of the Rings, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mars, Mathematics, Merchant of Venice, Milton, Nibelungenlied, Opera, Paradise Lost, Physics, Plato, Pope, Professor, Rape of the Lock, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Science, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Space, Space Flight, Spenser, Stage, Star Trek, Star Wars, Swift, Teachers, Tennyson, The Faerie Queene, The Martian, Tolkien, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Voltaire, Whitman, Wilderness, William Shakespeare and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “Classical” Literature

  1. I agree, a lot of classical literature is boring. My education in Holland was rudely interrupted with my family migrating to Australia. At least, during my formative years, the Dutch education spared me the Shakespeare. I never heard of him till after arrival in 1956 to Australia. I valiantly tried to immerse myself into his works but all to no avail. I just did not get it. It pleases me no end that you hold similar views. How refreshing.
    It is particularly encouraging to read your scepticism to what professors pushed onto students in reading material. You hold a doctorate and that surely gives weight to your very humorous ponderings on literature. I never went much beyond high school and for the most part am what is euphemistically called an ‘autodidact.’ My early Dutch education did push me to join a library within walking distance of our apartment shared by my parents and other five siblings in The Hague. My steady diet of books included the voluminous works of Jules Verne. I am somewhat chagrined that my grandkids don’t take to him, but each to their own. They do like reading.
    I greatly enjoy you writings.


    • lewbornmann says:

      I enjoy reading – always have. I typically read about one book a month in addition to several weekly magazines, monthly journals, and on-line newsletters: Time, Scientific American, The Economist, Pew Research, Communications of the ACM…. One thing missing however was any “supposedly” classical literature of the type typically given as assignments in high school and college.
      Last fall they also were added to my reading stack. I still had a list of selections assigned when an undergraduate so thought they would be a good place to start though it now seems somewhat restrictive; all were of European or U.S. origin and the most recent was written 100 years ago. As many of the selections had been previously read, albeit over a half century ago, it would be interesting to see if the material would still would be as uninteresting now as many of them had been back then.


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