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.)


  1. Part of the reason some of the classics are so boring has to do with the many authors who were paid by the word. That's why it takes them 52 words to say, "She cried." But I have more important things to discuss. Did you, in fact, seriously guffaw?

  2. Okay, I haven't read any of those - but I read Huckleberry Finn, which is almost the same as Tom Sawyer, and I remember mildly enjoying it :)

  3. I'm aware of the paid per word thing with classic authors, but those words didn't have to be BORING words, did they? Also, what I did when I saw the poster was guffaw in my head, really. (It's less messy than it sounds.)

    Huck Finn is on my list, Toby :D I think I'm going to go Treasure Island next, though.