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Why read? For the fun of it

Posted: May 24, 2008 2:19 p.m.
Updated: July 25, 2008 5:04 a.m.
 
"Nevermore," quoth Edgar Allan Poe's raven. How eerily he repeated that word to the poet's every question. And whenever I read the second to the last stanza of that poem, when the raven whispers his final negative to Poe, I imagine a tone of irony from that beak and a glimmer of amusement in that eye.

Wasn't he taunting the writer? "Get used to me," he might have said, "Because your despair will never leave you!"

Teach your kids to read. No, seriously. Buy books to let their imaginations wander. Movies are great, too.

But could any movie do justice to The Raven's dreariness? Could you really feel the protagonist's despair if you had decided to skip the poem and watch the movie to prepare for your college lit class? I doubt it.

Visual media generally disappoints when it comes to depicting the classics.

Directors are always at a loss for cramming the data from a book into a film. How often have you shouted, "They forgot that part"? And have you noticed that the scariest scenes in the movies always seem to take place off-screen where the viewer can only imagine what is happening?

Movies just cannot meet the standards of imagination.

The Sherlock Holmes series may have been the first piece of classic literature that I ever read. Its wiry hero with his aquiline features never solved a case more captivating than The Hound of the Baskervilles. A beast bounds onto the grimy moor from centuries past, breathing out phosphorous and terrorizing the countryside. Another favorite of mine was The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Who cannot scoff at the lustful priest as he howls, plummeting from the cathedral's heights? Or pity Quasimodo, as his hunchbacked skeleton clutches the gypsy girl's?

If I am doing my job right as I write this article, I am creating images in the reader's head. What's fun about reading is that the mind's eye draws an entirely new world with surprising detail with the words from the page. No need to describe every inch of the room. No need to show a painting. Give the general sense of the scene-who did what to whom, and how-and your mind draws quite a vivid picture while your eyes are still open. It's just like watching a movie, only you get to direct, cast, apply makeup and create the most convincing graphics. The overhead is quite reasonable, and no stunt men are required.

Now, if you want story-telling at its best, go back to Homer and the beginning of Western literature. The blind bard sung The Iliad and The Odyssey, tales of murder, licentious sex, battles, exotic settings, gorgeous women, machismo and life's ultimate questions. Just the sorts of things that Hollywood revels in. Only they fail miserably every time they try to present those two epic poems of renown. Wolfgang Peterson's Troy was a recent example. From the storyline to the special effects to the casting, the movie failed. Taking casting as an example, Brad Pitt and Eric Bana did not fill the armor of the mightiest warriors of ancient lore. They lacked the intimidating aura.

And while I leave the issue of male sex appeal to the women, I must relate the amusing two cents of one lady classics professor. "Neither of those young gentlemen stirred any tremors in my breast," she said wryly.

Of course, a director should not have to depict a story precisely as the original author wrote it. Orson Welles did not think so. Regarding his 1962 rendition of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial he stated that it was out of artistic "collaboration" with the author's text that he changed an integral part of the original story: the guilt or innocence of the trial defendant, Joseph K. Originally, Joseph K. found himself the innocent victim of a corrupt judicial system. In Welles' version?

"He's as guilty as hell!" Welles dialogued with Kafka through his movie by tweaking the story to make his own points and created a critical success in the process.

So while I missed Apollo's darts and Aphrodite's seductive beauty and Poseidon looming from the green depths, Troy did not fail because the screenwriter altered the story. Homer himself adapted the ancient tale hundreds of years after the legend is supposed to have occurred, as would many after him. Homer did not even include the entire story in his poems. But when you retell a story, you want to tell it better than the guy who told it previously. Troy failed because it missed The Iliad's grandeur.

I prefer The Odyssey to The Iliad. (The Iliad took too long tracing every warrior's family tree.) Odysseus starts his voyage home from Troy's sacking only to encounter so many adventures that he fails to reach his wife and son for ten years. A Cyclops, a sea monster and a stunning goddess hold the traveler back from his homeland. And when the man finally does reach his Ithaca, he has to fight off several suitors for his inheritance and the hand of his own wife. She had successfully held them at bay for a decade by promising to marry one of them only after she had finished weaving her tapestry. They cried foul when they realized she was pulling out the threads every night.

(Trust a woman to find a way around a man's presumption while appearing demure.) What great stories! And any bookstore will have them. Have you ever heard of the Loeb Classical Series? Harvard has published the very best edited texts and translations of Greek and Latin classics in fine, compact volumes that you can find in Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores. On the left-hand page sits the original text and on the right sits the English translation. But there are many editions to choose from.

I had the pleasure of studying Greek and Latin literature at The University of Pennsylvania a few years ago. Someone once described reading in the original languages as listening to music in surround sound, and reading a translation as listening through a single speaker. In the original language you glean a fuller appreciation of the writer's meaning. And it is so beautiful to listen to. A skillful reader will glide along the dactylic meter.

Some find Greek and Latin useful for building English vocabulary.

Since English is based on those two ancient languages, a compilation of Greek and Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes, may help you string English words together. Sometimes. So for example, if you see the prefix "un-" at the beginning of the word, it probably negates the rest of the word, as in "un-cooperative."

This is usually helpful when cramming for the vocabulary portion of a standardized test like the SAT or GRE when you have to match up a long, unfamiliar word with its definition in multiple choice format. You might be able to separate familiar portions of the word that were derived from some Greek or Latin morpheme and make a more educated guess from your list of options. Outside this situation, I cannot see a point of learning vocabulary in this way. I personally build vocabulary by reading widely with a dictionary sitting beside me. It's easier than trying to remember a long list of foreign words and half-words with no context.

So people study Greek and Latin for different reasons. I did because I enjoyed listening to my professor chant the word "Oh-doo-SAY-yoos" as she bounced along the poetic lines.

Now books are not the only mode of art or entertainment. Movies make great stories, too. The Godfather trilogy naturally sits on my shelf.

Another favorite, "The Third Man," recently polled by the British Film Institute as the UK's greatest movie. Here a hack American writer flies to post-World War II Vienna to find his best friend murdered and an indifferent British major in charge of the investigation. He tracks the killers through the sewers and finally encounters Orson Welles as the villain, who excuses his sins on the contention that civilization and culture sprout from conflict. A corrupt Italy, he notes, produced Michelangelo, da Vinci and the Renaissance, while a wholesome Switzerland had only a cuckoo clock to show for its centuries of democracy and peace. The police dogs soon take up the rascal's scent.

So whichever you chose, visual or print media, just pick the best. I promote books because people read a lot less nowadays than they watch movies. Also, books restrict your mind less. It wanders freer when reading. You still have to use the imagination and suspend disbelief when watching a movie. It's just more difficult.

Now, perhaps a kid's imagination does shrink every time he watches a movie as I heard so ominously one time. I can't speak to that. And maybe it's true that a lit major is superior to every other college major as a professor of mine used to insist. Reading does introduce you to new thoughts. But I never got a job through my expansive head.

And finally, I am not a snob! I often find "high art" tedious. No need to wade through boring material if you don't have to.

So why should you read good stories?

For the fun of it.

Joseph Cardwell is a Valencia resident. He is currently an intern at The Signal.

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