Thursday, February 24, 2011

The So-Called Classics

It was Jack Black who convinced me to start reading classic literature.

Well, not directly. It started in the movie theatre, where I saw a poster for the new Gulliver’s Travels movie, starring Jack Black. I immediately guffawed.

“That’s the worst thing to happen to literature since ever,” I thought, which sounds at least half-clever until you realize that I just couldn’t think of a good analogy. Still, there was no way that movie could ever do justice to the classic. I’m sure they’d do the whole “strapped to the ground by Lilliputians” scene, because it’s the most famous part of the book. But what about the other islands that Gulliver traveled to? Like, you know …that place where he…something about a horse, right?

That’s when I was forced to face the truth: The joy I had in making fun of the movie was severely hampered by the fact that I’d never actually read the original book. I was at a disadvantage if I wanted to mock the movie more intelligently.

I tried to talk myself out of it. I could just see how the movie would go: Jack as Gulliver would somehow find himself in the land of the Lilliputians, and we’d get a wide array of sophomoric size-related jokes. (Where will Gulliver ever find an outhouse that can accommodate him? Oh, the slapsticky troubles he’s sure to have!) Throw in a few random Tenacious D references, and there’s your movie.

But it was no use. I had to read the book to be sure. And once I was doing that, I figured I may as well expand my reach to other classic works as well. After all, what if I wanted to make fun of Pride and Prejudice or something, too?

So. Read the classics. Sounds simple enough, right? But here’s the secret that no college professor will tell you: Classic literature is boring.

Take Gulliver’s Travels, which is the book I started with. It’s over two hundreds pages long and contains a total of four distinct paragraphs. In other words, the thing is dense. It’s known as the quintessential satire, but unless you’re up on your eighteenth-century English politics, some of the references can be a little obscure.

For example, on page 56 in my edition, Gulliver talks of speaking to the king of the Lilliputians: “I communicated to his Majesty a project I had formed of seizing the enemy’s whole fleet; which, as our scouts assured us, lay at anchor in the harbour ready to sail with the first fair wind.” The endnote in the book explains the passage thusly: “Gulliver’s project to hijack the Blefuscudian fleet plays out allegorically the moderate Tory policy during the War of Spanish Succession in the last years of Queen Anne’s reign. Swift’s employers Harley and Bolingbroke believed that British naval dominance was more important than military prominence on the continent. Their secret efforts to negotiate a deal with the French to end the war struck some as close to Jacobitism and resulted in charges brought against them for high treason in 1715.”

Ha ha! Yes yes, quite quite. Very good.

But I did plow through it. I also read Fahrenheit 451, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Sherlock Holmes. Interesting fact: Did you know that House from TV’s “House” is actually just a medically-minded Sherlock Holmes? The characters are practically identical, right down to the drug addiction. (I know. I was upset that I learned something while reading, too.)

So yes. Now I read classic literature. It’s okay. I got what I wanted out of it, which is this:

I've read Gulliver’s Travels. Have YOU? Ha! I seriously doubt it. (Although I don’t recommend it. Watch the movie instead.)

Monday, February 7, 2011

Things I Don't Understand #4

LA’s laissez-faire attitude towards cataclysmic events.

What’s your favorite disastrous weather phenomenon?

I recently had this conversation with an acquaintance of mine. I’ll call him Joe, both to preserve his anonymity and because I forgot his name. He was telling me that he greatly prefers LA’s earthquakes to Chicago’s blizzards.
Now, to sane people to you and I, this may seem ludicrous. Yes, blizzards can be dangerous if you’re not careful. But if you really consider it, it’s basically just a whole lotta snow. And for those of us who are not LA natives, we know that snow isn’t a mystical curse sent by the gods to punish us. All you have to do to deal with a blizzard is dig yourself out or wait for the stuff to melt. And any disaster in which procrastination is a viable method of survival should rank pretty low on the disaster scale. But earthquakes? Buildings fall down. That’s a gen-u-ine bad situation.

So how did Joe respond to this?

“Eh,” he said, with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Buildings don’t actually fall down these days.”

And that’s technically true. Tall buildings are built on “rollers,” which allow them to roll when earthquakes hit, instead of falling down. A nausea-inducing solution, but a solution nonetheless. (Their other tactic is to build very few buildings over two stories. Also effective, but it makes the entire city seem like one big strip mall, which is kind of like an ongoing natural disaster.)

But I guess there’s an upside. When The Big One™ comes and cracks California into the ocean, at least I can have a good “I told ya so” moment.