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Why old novels are still relevant

Being an English minor has its pluses. You get to read great books, sit around thinking about them, and finally sit around discussing them with other people. What more could a student ask for? (Well, I suppose a student could ask for ""no homework, no assignments and no tuition."" But he probably wouldn't get it.)


In one class this semester, I read the English literature classics, from ""Robinson Crusoe"" to ""Pride and Prejudice."" In another, I read the angst-ridden classics of the twentieth century, like Andre Gide's ""The Immoralist."" Looking back on the semester, I'm struck by how relevant most of these books still seem. Reading all these books didn't feel like delving into an arcane and dusty realm; it was more like glimpsing a weirdly distorted version of our own world.

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One of the first books I had to read happened to be the first official novel in the English language: Samuel Richardson's ""Pamela."" This bulky work consists entirely of letters and diary entries from a young servant girl chronicling her employer's incessant attempts to sleep with her. A disturbingly large part of the book consists largely of chatter like this: ""O, wretched, wretched Pamela! Poor, poor me! What, at last, will become of me?"" Well, you get the idea. Eventually, Pamela gives in and marries her boss and proceeds to do nothing for the book's remaining 200 pages.


My first reaction to the book — and, in truth, my only reaction to it, and one that I repeated on every one of its 592 pages — was to scoff, and scoff loudly. But is the appeal of ""Pamela"" really that far from, say, ""Twilight""? Is fantasizing about being involved in a weird affair with your creepy aristocratic boss any stranger than being involved in a weird affair with a vampire?


The same goes for those classics of satirical adventure, ""Gulliver's Travels"" and ""Robinson Crusoe."" If ""Gulliver"" anticipates the sardonic humor of our age, from Mad magazine to ""South Park,""  ""Crusoe,"" with its shipwrecks and cannibals and pirates, has its descendant in the breathless action romps that rush through theaters every summer.


The difference is that the artists behind these works couldn't rely on rivers of money or armies of technicians to paint their masterworks. Instead, they had to work from their imaginations, filling in each detail with words and words alone. Unlike today's authors, they also had virtually no literary models to work from.


One result is that each book necessarily tells you a lot — too much, sometimes — about the person who wrote it. On the evidence of ""Pamela,"" I suspect that Richardson was an exceedingly strange man, just as Jonathan Swift's hilariously extreme loathing of the human race — ""the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth"" — is crystal-clear in ""Gulliver."" Unable to copy anyone else, they had no choice but to show us the unmediated contents of their baffling brains.


In another class, I read the first volume of Marcel Proust's ""In Search of Lost Time,"" his seven-volume examination of, well, everything. Proust was the kind of person who saves decade-old grocery lists because he's afraid they might turn out to be important. His book is an unspeakably moving masterpiece, and a very annoying one. I don't know if these two responses can be untangled.


But the most memorable work I read this semester was John Milton's ""Paradise Lost."" Milton, an embittered radical republican from the English Civil War era, had a lot to be angry about — not least going blind, which meant he had to dictate everything — and he poured all of his rage and resentment into his epic retelling of the story of the Garden of Eden.


Of course, it's not a novel. It's an epic poem, told in rich and flowing unrhymed verse. And, as I and everyone else who participated in the Nov. 20 Milton Marathon at the UA can tell you, it's bloody hard to talk like that. It's hard to imagine it having quite the same impact if it were a novel, with Adam and Eve having conversations like regular people: ""Hey."" ""Hey."" ""So, uh, you hungry?""


As the semester winds down, I find myself yearning for the way people talk now. Fortunately, I don't have to yearn for too long; all one has to do is scan the Internet or pick up a copy of Entertainment Weekly to be reminded — with relief and only a twinge of regret — that the age of Richardson and Milton and Proust is gone forever. If anyone ever dares write like that again, they'll be confined to a LiveJournal and will only write for 15 people, most of whom will eagerly skip each of their entries.


But wait — if that kind of writing is dead, what exactly is our literary legacy to the ages? Heaven forfend, will students be forced to write 1,500-word papers on Stephenie Meyer in 200 years?



— Justyn Dillingham is the arts and features editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at arts@wildcat.arizona.edu.


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