My relationship with classical literature is tenuous and recalcitrant. Friends occasionally try to engage me on the great works I should have read, only to ask, mystified, “what kind of English major were you?” Well. I’ll be honest. I was the kind of English major who found the classical style of writing about as familiar and appealing as the corsets and straight-last shoes people wore when they penned their masterpieces. A voracious reader since childhood, I dreaded each new semester’s syllabi, rife with things that promised to be a hard slog at best. (Since high school, I have been assigned to read The Faerie Queene no less than five times. I grind my teeth just thinking about it and, yet, will confess: I have never actually read it. I managed to pass every pop quiz and test by taking good notes from the lectures.) I believe classical literature has its merits but I also believe teachers, students, and casual readers should all consider that writing style has an impact on our ability to understand and enjoy a written work. Reading the classics can be as challenging as if we were to dress in period costume, perch on badly made wooden benches in drafty, uninsulated buildings, and study those pages by candlelight.
Treasure Island has always been a particular struggle for me. I love seafaring tales and after watching the first few seasons of Black Sails I was embarrassed anew to confront the fact that I had only paged through Treasure Island once, long ago, and finished with the question of “good God, how could anyone ever assign this to children?” I asked that not because it wasn’t a worthy, good tale but because the archaic tone of the writing style made it barely comprehensible to me as an adult. (Obviously, because it prominently features a child as a main character, kids should love it. But how? Even as a well-educated lover of books, I could hardly stay focused from one paragraph to the next.) I’m not trying to criticize Stevenson, or to make myself sound like an idiot. But I’ll just say it: old-timey writing is not as compelling (to most modern readers) as modern writing is. I failed at reading Kidnapped for the same reason, only to adore the film version.
There, is, happily, a middle ground. I started listening to the audio version of Treasure Island and discovered that enthusiastic narration transforms the outdated prose into an active tale. (This is not to say that you can let your mind wander – it’s still the product of another age and requires more attentiveness than the average prime time drama.) Since it’s old enough to be in the public domain it and other classics are available for free through Librivox. So, there’s no excuse now not to at least try to give more classics a chance. Except The Faerie Queene. (I didn’t dodge it five times and still get perfectly good grades to knuckle under now.)