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Topic: Reading Classics to Understand Contemporaries

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Subject: Reading Classics to Understand Contemporaries
Date Posted: 4/11/2009 3:22 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
Posts: 25,000
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I am reading Ahab's Wife. Obviously it's connected to and intertwines with the classic Moby Dick.

But wait, it gets worse, or better if you're familiar with lots of English lit classics.

After reading some reviews on Amazon.com I learned that in Ahab's Wife there are numerous references to other characters and classic books that, of course, I haven't read yet and I am wondering if I am over my head on this book. For example,  I also haven't touched anything by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I don't know anything about Virginia Woolf's The Lighthouse and so forth.

While I debate whether I should continue this book, tell me what classics have you read that have helped you understand a contempory novel or film?

For example, I've read Cold Mountain and I've watched "Oh Brother Where Art Thou?" and both are similar to Odysseus which I haven't bothered to read. I suspect, though I have no idea, that Oh Brother Where Art Thou?"might also be a phrase borrowed from Shakespeare. Just a guess.

All this makes me feel as if I am missing so much more out of today's lit. This is why I have the other thread about being well-read. I feel like I am not even close.

Date Posted: 4/12/2009 12:48 AM ET
Member Since: 8/30/2007
Posts: 3,237
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Actually, "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" is a title of a documentary that a character in a Preston Sturges movie is trying to film. Can't remember the name of the movie...I think it starred Joel McCrea and it was from the late 30's. Not sure why the Coen brothers picked that for their title, though. I think the fake movie was supposed to be about the Depression and people down on their luck, maybe that's why.

Ah, Wikipedia comes to the rescue: "The film displays a sly reference to another type of mythmaking: filmmaking, specifically the 1941 satire Sullivan's Travels by Preston Sturges, in which the title character sets out to make a grim, socially conscious film to be called O Brother, Where Art Thou? After the privileged director experiences hardships of his own, he decides that comedic films are of more value than self-important dramas. Similarly, the Coen brothers' movie also has the tone and imagery of Depression-era realism interlaced with a comedic element."

Anyway...the only extremely superficial examples I can come up with at this time of night are Bridget Jones' Diary, which is a take-off of Pride and Prejudice, and the movie "Clueless," which is modeled on Emma. You can read/watch them without knowing the source material, but it adds a great deal to the experience if you know what the model is.

On the flip side, I really liked Geraldine Brooks' March because it illuminated the story of Little Women for me.

An entertaining book that touches on this topic is How to Read Literature like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster--he mentions various writers who drew from the Bible, Shakespeare, Greek and Roman mythology, etc., for their characters, story lines, allusions, and titles. There are a lot of classics I haven't read, but I know just enough about them to recognize when they pop up here and there. Of course, I miss a lot, too--and i was an English major! Shame, shame!

Date Posted: 4/12/2009 4:49 PM ET
Member Since: 4/16/2008
Posts: 576
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That's how I feel about biblical referrences.  There are so many things that referrence the bible that even with footnotes I feel lost (I've never read the bible). 

I would say to keep reading and just look things up as you run across them on wikepedia or amazon etc.  That way you get the referrence and you'll know if you want to read the book that's being referrenced. 

Don't worry too much about the referrences.  We can't read everything and there is really no way to "know" what to read.

Kat (polbio) -
Date Posted: 4/21/2009 11:05 AM ET
Member Since: 10/10/2008
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I think there are a few things that make it easier to understand the jokes or statements if you have read certain classics. I notice it in movies as well. We watched an old Bing Crosby movie the other night and he called himself "Pygmalian Pete" because he was transforming a stuck up rich girl into a "hot" girl the guy she loves would go after. I got the joke, my hubby didnt. I had to explain that Pygmalia is the name of the play My Fair Lady is based on. THere are also a lot of references to "heathcliff and Catherine", "Oliver Twist" and "Mr Darcy" in both books and movies. When I finally read Wuthering Heights, I understood the Heathcliff and Catherine references. Oliver Twist from the Charles Dickens classic and of course MR Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. There are many other examples.  I see in Movies, especially, when they reference Shakespeare. You have to understand not just the quote but which play the quote was coming from in order to understand the statement.

Subject: sometimes it helps...sometimes it hurts
Date Posted: 4/22/2009 1:04 AM ET
Member Since: 1/13/2009
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 Sometimes it helps to get all the references and sometimes it just reminds you that the contemporary stuff is subpar.

Date Posted: 4/22/2009 12:06 PM ET
Member Since: 1/30/2009
Posts: 5,696
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Sometimes it helps to get all the references and sometimes it just reminds you that the contemporary stuff is subpar.

This was the experience I had when I decided to re-read Great Expectations right before reading Peter Carey's Jack Maggs.  In retrospect, it was kind of a mistake for as much as I loved Peter Carey's books at the time, the comparison was a little unkind to his work.

I've always hated not understanding references, or not knowing things.  When I was 9 or 10 years old I was reading Noel Streatfield's Ballet Shoes, in which the children perform in a production of a Midsummer Night's Dream.  I hated not knowing what they were talking about, so I read the play.  I remember not wanting anyone making a big deal out of the fact that I was reading Shakespeare, so I snuck the complete works into my bedroom, and read it under the covers.  A few years later I was reading an Agatha Christie novel (I'm not saying which one, as this anecdote is a little spoiler-y), where an important clue hinged on a character not knowing what The Judgement of Paris was.  So I immediately went and looked that up - I had already read lots of Greek myths, so it wasn't that much of a leap.  I think the most important thing in forming what kind of reader I am was the fact that I grew up in a house full of books, top to bottom, of all sorts.  The dorky need to know has stayed with me through adulthood.  I still need to look up everything I don't understand. 

Date Posted: 5/9/2009 5:02 AM ET
Member Since: 3/22/2009
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I've not read nearly enough classics to fully appreciate Jasper Fforde's books, but I love them anyway. The references I do understand are hilarious. :-)

Date Posted: 5/9/2009 2:37 PM ET
Member Since: 12/27/2007
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I re-read Hamlet after reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle.  I'm so clueless that I didn't make the connection until I read it on this or another message board.

Kat (polbio) -
Date Posted: 8/9/2009 1:02 PM ET
Member Since: 10/10/2008
Posts: 3,067
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Cat; I've not read nearly enough classics to fully appreciate Jasper Fforde's books, but I love them anyway. The references I do understand are hilarious. :-) '

I thought of this thread last night while I was reading Jasper Fforde. I am really liking The Eyre Affair. It is set in an alternate world where it blends together 1984 and Inkheart. The main character, Thursday Next is a government agent in a world where literature is lived, bootlegged, forged, and mimicked. People change their names to their favorite poets and Baconians argue the "truth"  of shakespeare.  Riots break out over which art is true art. When Jane Eyre is kidnapped out of her book, Thursday Next has to rescue her.

The book is very entertaining and parts are really funny, especially the names of some of the characters, like Agent Braxton Hicks and Mr Schitt. However I think you need to be versed in classic literature and poetry to fully get the references. They reference MANY authors and many of the jokes probably wouldnt be as funny if you arent familiar with those authors or their work. Also, if you havent read Jane Eyre, they give away the ending and quote from different parts of it.

Date Posted: 8/11/2009 11:52 AM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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One more----The Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys, is tied to Jane Eyre.  It kind of 'fleshes out' the story, from an alternate point of view.

It's rather disappointing that so many people these days don't "get" the biblical references in literature, because they didn't attend church school, or read either of, or both, the  testaments.   And maybe if it hadn't been for Freud (and Eugene O'Neill, too?) dipping back into Greek mythology for names for things (such as narcissism and Oedipus complex, or Electra) many of us wouldn't be familiar with those references, either.

I went to Sunday School (Grandma obliged me to do so), and later I read fairy tales and myths, so I managed well enough when reading those older novels.  But the thing that really slowed me down was the way some authors would throw in little fragments of French, or Latin, or even Greek (frequently verse or famous quotations) or some other 'foreign' language.  For example, take a look at A. S. Byatt's Possession.

Date Posted: 9/2/2009 8:29 PM ET
Member Since: 10/7/2008
Posts: 1,026
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What a delightful topic to find.  I would agree with most of the comments here.  I think the fact that you are curious enough to want to expand your knowledge is a good thing.  Don't get to bogged down on being up on everything,  we have so many years of writing to glean these things from, even if  we read day and night, we couldn't learn it all.  That doesn't mean we shouldn't enjoy the process either!

I am always looking things up and enjoy finding these asides to classics in every thing.  I absolutely love Jasper Fforde for this reason, he makes you work for it but the payoff is wonderful.  I knew I was going to like it when I was laughing at the first quote of Mr. Milon de Floss- remembering reading Eliot's Mill on The Floss in college.

I think back to the Star Trek film, First Contact.   I took an older friend to see it with me and she was amazed at all the Shakespearean references and quotes!  It was priceless to hear the Klingons try to claim he was one of them at heart.  "Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war"  and just this week this phrase pops up in a commercial for a BBC program about cars (Top Gear).   It is great to have these fun moments.   Enjoy them and keep on reading.  Cheers!