TOO MUCH CHATTER DOOMS THE CLASSICS

(Originally published The Globe and Mail 2001)

Recently, I discovered that I’m a wannabe classics reader.
At first, I was very enthusiastic when someone in our book group suggested that we read a classic novel, as well as something contemporary.  I hadn’t read many classics and liked the lofty idea of being able to add a few choice titles to my list of books read.
None of us are exactly certain what officially makes a book a classic, but we’ve developed our own system, which seems to work.  Basically, the book has to be fairly well-known or has to have been written more than fifty years ago (sounded like a good number).  If the author is dead, it’s even better.  A combination of all three of these requirements make it a classic for sure.  In other words: If it looks like a classic and smells like a classic, then it’s probably a classic.
Right off the bat, I knew I was in trouble.  We read A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, which I couldn’t quite finish for a number of inadequate reasons.  Although I wish I could say that the reading got easier for me, it didn’t.  I laboured through Women in Love, Return of the Native and Anna Karenina, desperately trying to decipher some grain of meaning, some purpose to these stories.
I was left with only one option: sabotage the classics category.
Reading these novels just made me weary, and irritated by the pages upon endless pages of what seemed like useless idle chatter.  It was one boring conversation after another, few of which seemed to have to do with developing the story—at least, not so far as I could tell.
Although it was mostly the wealthy and upper classes who sat around in grand salons talking about affairs of state, music, art or the theatre, even the peasants seemed to be doing their share of sitting around and gabbing.  Of course, they did their conversing mostly around open fires in a field or in a kitchen before a warm hearth.
In Anna Karenina, Countess Ivanovna asks her guests:  And what should we talk about this evening?  These days, most of us don’t approach conversation in such a contrived way (not unless you’re part of a book group).  But a person was very much judged by how well they could speak on various subjects.  An evening of conversation in her salon would be especially delightful if there was a special guest, such as a poet or artist or someone from the theatre, who would talk about their art or craft.  Even politicians, dignitaries, and heads of state were welcome guests who often provided fine conversation about their important work.
In the midst of my reading anguish, I did, however, manage to be impressed at how valued conversation was in those times.  Of course, their biggest distraction was a pianoforte played quietly in the background, nothing like the sound of a hockey game on the TV to stifle their refined discussion.  Yet, even with our modern distractions, I think we all still value a good chat even though we don’t make a big production of doing so.
As in everything, though, there is good conversation and there is bad.  You just need to find yourself sitting next to the wrong kind of person at a dinner party, in a pub, at a company meeting, in a bus or on a train.  Yet strangely, sometimes the most satisfying conversations are those with a total stranger.  When you discover an instant easy connection with someone where your thoughts and personality flow forth like music and bounce off the inside of your head like sunlight, it leaves you thinking:  Hey, I’m a real smart and witty person.  On the other hand, if that person next to you on the train smells like a funky potato and wants to talk about the redeeming qualities of the piece of gum he just discovered under his shoe, you’ll keep your eyes to yourself in the future and your mouth shut.
So what makes conversation good?  I’m not sure that there is any specific formula.  You just recognize it—or rather, feel it—when it happens.  I do know that it’s a two-way street:  unless you’ve volunteered yourself to be Dr. Freud to someone’s psyche or vice-versa, no one wants to hear all about you.  It’s like asking someone how their vacation was and did they take any pictures.  The next thing you know, they’ve plunked 500 of their favourite snap shots down in front of you.
Some think that a fine glass of wine or a cold pint encourages good talk.  I, too, think myself quite eloquent after a few.  But if you’ve ever had the unique opportunity to meet up with a group of people who are several rounds ahead of you, you know that alcohol does not always make for sensible conversation.  And since what qualifies as good conversation should be memorable, well…
At last summer’s family picnic, we didn’t have any poets or heads of state to amuse us, but we had some fine conversation happening.  My cousin Sam told a pretty rude joke about a farmer and some sheep that turned my father’s ears beet red.  My grandmother and Aunt Louise got into a heated debate about where to set up the picnic tables.  And we all talked about the important work we do.  Clive sells used auto parts and Sharon and her sister bake really pretty cakes and sell them to people for birthdays and weddings.
I guess that’s what’s so great about being part of a book group.  I get to meet with a group of people who love to read as much as I do, but even more…who love to talk about it.  We nibble at pretty little hors d’oeuvre plates, some that could rival anything the Countess Ivanovna could throw together.  There’s a little wine to help stimulate our highly cultured and intellectual discussions (just a little).  And rule No. 29 prohibits any of us from circulating our vacation pictures.
As for my plans to sabotage the classics, unfortunately, we are also a group self-governed under the highest principles of true democracy.  Hence:
Classics, nay: 1.
Classics, yea: 5.

 

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