By Carolyn Kellogg
6:00 AM PST, February 19, 2013
It's almost as if Kevin Smokler found himself in 30-something detention: well into adulthood, he was sentenced to go back and re-read the books he read in high school English class. He might have escaped if he hadn't been passing notes in class written that book proposal.
"Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven't Touched Since High School," officially lands in bookstores today. In it, Smokler returns to Herman Melville's "Bartleby, The Scrivener," George Orwell's "Animal Farm," "A Separate Peace" by John Knowles and F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatby," perennial favorites of English teachers.
But Smokler didn't stick strictly to the "reread" designation in the title. He includes books and stories that have cropped up on syllabi since he graduated almost two decades ago: Sherman Alexie's "Reservation Blues," "Bastard Out of Carolina" by Dorothy Allison and "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" by David Foster Wallace. And some classics he missed.
In "Practical Classics," Smokler writes short essays on each author and work. It's a project that he undertook with "foolish optimism," a book that's addressed to casual readers over PhDs.
In the intro, you suggest that if you were having the time of your life in high school, you probably weren’t spending all your time reading. That cracked me up, but the underlying idea made me a little sad. How do you think we can shed the idea that fun and reading are opposites?
Boy that's not easy. You've got two things working against you, at least when you are young. One, "reading" is a category of assignment. So "to read" is already linked with "and to be dissected/to be tested upon/to have to write papers about." Which has never sounded like any fun to me. Also, there's a latent idea that people who like to read are mole people, who are reading to avoid human contact and interaction out of fear and awkwardness. And we both know that is a tiny, skewed representation of readers. Everyone I know who likes to read also likes having fun.
I don't have a big solution to this but here's a little one: Those of us who love books, love to read but love to have fun too should stop conflating reading with isolation. Stop saying: "I'm boring, I just wanna go home and read," because that doesn't make you boring. It means you're choosing one kind of fun over another, not doing the opposite of fun. And if possible, imagine reading, or at least celebrating the joy of it as a group activity. I love the Silent Reading Parties idea that began in Seattle some years ago, where a group of people meet in a hotel lobby and read for a few hours. If you want to chitchat, you adjourn to the bar. The idea came from a group of people who liked to read after work but didn't want to sacrifice time with friends to do so.
You reread (or just plain read) 50 books for “Practical Classics.” Did you discover a new favorite?
Many new favorites! One that sticks out is Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." Now, I'm a gabby, Midwestern Jew, the son of two psychologists and an eldest child. Talking about what you're feeling and saying what you mean is in my DNA. So books by the Jane Austens and Edith Whartons and James Thackerys and George Eliots of the world where everyone is all sewn up and lying about what's on their mind are really not my thing. I just wanna start throwing china against the drawing room walls and ordering everyone to therapy.
I couldn't believing how much I loved "Innocence," and how brilliantly observed, withering yet not hateful or dismissive it was. It's as much a book about taking responsibility for your choices as it is a love that cannot be (which is what I was positive it was about in high school). And for a novel mostly containing thwarted glances and interrupted meetings, its pace is thrilling. And really, who can write about curtain fabric like Edith Wharton and actually make you give a care?
In the rereading, was there any book you remembered fondly that didn’t hold up?
Sadly, yes. James Baldwin is one of my literary heroes, but I remember liking "Go Tell it On the Mountain" much more as a young person than now. I reread it and it felt slow-footed and clumsy, where I remember it dancing and singing long ago. But I think this as much to do with the fact that I was writing what is essentially a book of essays and, at least at this point in life, Baldwin's essays speak to me much more than his fiction. In his essays I see a mentor. In his novels, a passing acquaintance maybe even a stranger.
You write that it was difficult to narrow this list to 50. What didn’t make the cut? And dude, where’s Dickens?
I only had 10 months to write "Practical Classics" so I had to leave behind anything too lengthy or dense because I wouldn't have made my deadline. So out went "Middlemarch" and "Crime and Punishment" and "The Cherry Orchard" (too many names to keep straight!) and as hard as it was, Nabokov.
Dickens: Shoot, I wish I had a good reason for that. The only Dickens I read in high school was "Great Expectations," which I have lousy memories of and probably should have given a second chance. Saved for the sequel?
In the age of internettiness, what made you want to write a book? Why not a listicle, or a Tumblr?
Every big project I take on has to have a big personal challenge I haven't yet taken on or else I don't see the point. For "Practical Classics" it was writing something the length of a book, all by myself, so a Tumblr post or listicle wouldn't have cut it. Now I cheated a little bit because this is a book made up of 50 smaller essays, but every word in those 320 pages is mine.
The next book will be one story, told over several chapters, so no leaning on the essay crutch next time.
It takes a lot of time to read a book – and 50 books is a lot! How long did you spend reading for “Practical Classics”? Did you write as you went along?
I had exactly 10 months to write "Practical Classics" and my worst nightmare was either a) handing in a giant glob of it to my editor and finding out the separate pieces didn't hang together or b) deluding myself into believing that, because it wasn't being edited, that meant I wasn't making any progress (I am more than capable of such idiocy). So as soon as I was done reading a book, I'd spend a day in research and note taking, maybe two days in writing the essay then sending it in to my editor and moving on to the next one. It was the only way I could convince myself something like a book was actually happening.
In some ways, each chapter feels a little like a lesson on an author and book. Have you ever considered being a high school English teacher?
Cant' say I have. It's challenging enough for me to screw up the courage to write every day. Being responsible for shaping generations of young minds and their relationship to books would scare the dickens (har har) out of me.
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