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Nowhere is a literary canon set in stone, but many of the novels generally considered ‘classics’ are enjoying a bit of a renaissance. But why should we read Melville, Chaucer, or Dickens today? We’ll consider what novels can reveal about our history and ourselves.
- Nathaniel Philbrick Author, "Why Read Moby-Dick?"(Viking)
- Susan Richards Shreve Professor, George Mason University;co-chair, PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors; author.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Whether their words are held within thick spines stacked on library shelves or on slim e-readers literary classics are enjoying a renaissance of sorts with over half of American adults reading some form of literature each year. But what makes a novel a classic and what can modern Americans learn from authors who wrote about bygone eras and faraway places?
MR. KOJO NNAMDILike most good questions, these have more than one answer and here to help us provide them is Nathaniel Philbrick. He's a historian, author and sailor. His latest work is "Why Read Moby Dick?" Other books include "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower." Nathaniel Philbrick, thank you for joining us.
MR. NATHANIEL PHILBRICKIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Susan Richards Shreve, she is a professor teaching creative writing at George Mason University and is part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors. Susan Richards Shreve is also author of numerous novels and a memoir, "Warm Springs." Susan, thank you so much for joining us.
PROF. SUSAN RICHARDS SHREVEIt's great to be here.
NNAMDIIt's a conversation we'd be happy for you to join by calling us at 800-433-8850. Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Do you read or re-read classic favorites or classic works of literature on a regular basis? What is your favorite? 800-433-8850, you can also send us a tweet at kojoshow. Susan, nowhere is there a literary canon set in stone. While a lot of authors and works are generally agreed to be classics, it's still a concept somewhat open to interpretation. What in your mind makes a book a classic?
SHREVEA readership, the reading of the book again and again through generations. And what helps that, in part, is the academy, but I also think the book itself because it continues to speak to readers of each generation in a different way.
PHILBRICKYeah, and I've really looked to the book itself and I'm obviously a big fan of "Moby Dick." And for me, what keeps that book resonating is that when Melville wrote this book in 1850, he internalized all the things that were happening in America, ten years before the Civil War. And by doing that, there's all sorts of submerged things happening there that continue to resonate years later when similar pre-catastrophe situations occur. And so a timeless book makes you feel like what it's like to be alive in any time and I think it's that ability.
NNAMDIIt seems that whenever one walks into a bookstore these days, you can see displays of current bestsellers alongside tables filled with titles by authors like Austen, Dickens and Hawthorne. Do you think it's fair to say classics are enjoying a bit of a renaissance these days?
PHILBRICKYeah, I do. I think as, you know, in this modern era of bits and bytes and tweets, I think there's a real hunger for an engagement with something that requires your full and undivided attention, that really feels like a breath of fresh air, that takes you to a different place outside of where you are in your day to day. And a classic book does that, it takes you to a different time and yet, you know, gives you a different perspective on where you are today.
NNAMDISusan, are you seeing something of a renaissance yourself?
SHREVEI am and it's -- I think it's wonderful because for a long period of time teaching, it was difficult to get students to read the classics. They wanted to read contemporary literature. I also think that there is the perspective that you have of reading of a time that is not yours. It's one that gives you a sense of safety as well as delight in looking at your own time in your own life. Jane Austen has been read again and again by even very young kids talking about these novels of manners and I think that part of it is they've all experienced something similar in one way.
SHREVEAnd another part is that they created whole worlds, these classics really created whole worlds and needed the language in order to do the descriptions and make the drawing rooms or make the whaling ships and there's something about losing yourself in a whole world. Maybe we're tired of simply the visual.
NNAMDINat, you mentioned "Moby Dick." You were a reluctant reader of "Moby Dick" the first time you tackled it. Before this broadcast, I called a high school friend of mine who is an architect living in this area today. And when we were about 12 or 13 years old, he was a particularly good artist and he got an art prize of "Moby Dick." And it took him over a year to read it and he cursed silently to himself all the while, while he was plowing through the book, so much so that even though today, many, many years later...
NNAMDI...he still remembers the experience.
PHILBRICKHe's still angry, yeah.
NNAMDIHe's still angry. Do you think we sometimes expect students to take on classics before they're quite ready?
PHILBRICKAbsolutely. I think "Moby Dick" is a book I have only really come to appreciate once I got into my 30s. I think, you know, if you have some life experience, you often see -- have an ability to see beyond your own, whatever's happening in adolescence. But there are some kids, for example, in adolescence will have -- be ready for that. It depends on the person.
PHILBRICKBut I found personally with "Moby Dick," for example, once I reached Melville's age when he wrote it, which was 31, suddenly it just -- oh yeah, I'm beginning to understand where it's coming from. But it's a very personal kind of thing. But I would really encourage people. There have been so many people that have been running from "Moby Dick" ever since it was assigned in high school. And I completely sympathize, but I think once you get into your 30s and beyond, it becomes a different book and it becomes a different book every time you return to it.
NNAMDIAnd Susan, for me, the "Moby Dick" experience was Sir Walter Scott's "Old Mortality" that was given to me as a teenager. And I plowed through it, but hated having to do it. On the other hand, the prologue for "The Canterbury Tales" was striking to me even at that same age. What's going on there?
SHREVEWell, I think the prologue to "The Canterbury Tales" in the hands of a good teacher is incredibly exciting and wild and...
NNAMDIWhich is what appealed to me as a teenager, yes...
SHREVE…wonderful. Yes, exactly. I think the choice of books for young people is really those old curriculums in which the high school curriculum, the same books were read in every high school. People felt that, at this point, you were ready to read such and such a book. I have never gone back to it actually and we were not assigned "Moby Dick" and I think that that might be one thing. But we were assigned "The Great Gatsby," which is a fairly simple, straightforward, in its way, book, but I was too young to understand irony so I think that that's a very large part of coming back.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Were you a reluctant reader of the classics as a student? Have you come to appreciate them as an adult or were you turned off for good? 800-433-8850, you can also send e-mail to email@example.com. Susan, you teach creative writing and the books you have authored are mostly novels. If someone wants to write, how important is it to read and learn from the classics?
SHREVEOh, essential. I think that reading not only is so important for learning to write and we are in a time in which a great many people seem to feel that they are unrelated, that essentially writing can be done without reading, even in some MFA programs. But I think that it also teaches you to think and that is essential for life as well as for writing.
NNAMDIWhen -- what kind of reaction do you get from your students when you include lengthy tomes on your syllabus?
SHREVEYou know, surprisingly, this whole program reflects, I think, what I began to see in students, which was a delight in getting to read the book itself, a delight in books that they had never read, but heard about for a long time. I remembered assigning "Anna Karenina" and finding students a little shocked that I expected them to read it in a week. But they did and with more or less a lot of satisfaction and pleasure.
NNAMDINat, you mainly write historical non-fiction. How do novels like "Moby Dick" influence your work?
PHILBRICKWell, as a non-fiction writer, most of my time is spent in research. Seventy-five percent of the time I'm not writing, I'm reading documents and going into archives and things like that. And -- so that it -- I spend a lot of time reading stuff that is not that interesting in a literary way. For me, I use "Moby Dick" as kind of the way to get my mojo going.
PHILBRICKYou know, because the big challenge for me is looking at all of these different sources and then trying to integrate them into my own voice. And sometimes I feel like my voice is starved and so I will pick up "Moby Dick" in the middle of a writing project and just anywhere, you know, just pick it up and start reading a paragraph or two. And it's like, okay, yeah, you know, I'm getting it now. And it really just helps me get the juices flowing.
NNAMDINathaniel Philbrick, using "Moby Dick" as his mojo and his writing coach. He's a historian, author and sailor. His latest work is "Why Read Moby Dick?" Other books include "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower." He joins us in studio with Susan Richards Shreve. She's a professor teaching creative writing at George Mason University and part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation Board of Directors.
NNAMDIShe's also the author of numerous novels and a memoir called "Warm Springs." 800-433-8850 is the number to call. We'll start with Lisa in Charles Town, W. Va. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAHi, yeah, I wanted to reiterate about the age that we start reading these books. We were assigned "Moby Dick" in an advanced reading at age 16 in high school and I just didn't get it. And I just didn't understand why we were reading it. I didn't identify with any of the characters or anything. And then as an adult, I was given this beautiful copy of it, leather bound, gold pages, beautiful illustrations.
LISAAnd I was an adult and I could recognize characters by people that I'd met, people that I knew. I had so much more perspective. And I think, just reading the book itself was much more pleasurable then reading the, you know, the terrible paperback copies you're given as a high school student, but also just having more affinity to the different types of people that you've met as an adult that you can see in those characterizations in book.
LISAI just don't believe Melville ever wrote that book, to think that 16-year-olds are (unintelligible) olds are going to read it. He was writing it for adults. And even, you know, 30, 40 years ago, 16-year-olds were not adults. I think that had a lot to do with, you know, my finally reading it as an adult. But also having the pleasure of reading a real book and I don’t get that same pleasure when I read an e-reader. So I just wanted to add that...
NNAMDIWe'll get to e-readers in a second. But, Nat, I'd like you to talk about -- what about the 16 or 17-year-old who reads "Moby Dick" and gets it?
PHILBRICKYeah, it's -- it depends. Hemmingway, for example, was very proud that he had read it in high school. And, you know, and it clearly affected where he would, you know, he'd end up in Key West and bringing in the big ones and things like that. It depends, you know, I was -- I really loved the book as a senior because I was a sailor in Pittsburgh, Pa. and was infatuated with the ungraspable phantom of life, the sea and that's how "Moby Dick" begins.
PHILBRICKYou know, so if you have a personal way in, yeah, that maybe enough. But if you don't, Melville was an example of a guy. He, you know, he went whaling and it wasn't until his late 20s that he first seriously read Shakespeare. And, like, the listener, just -- he found a copy, an edition of Shakespeare which had large type, and already his eyes were beginning to bother him from his time out in whaling.
PHILBRICKAnd this big type edition of Shakespeare was a delight for him. And he really discovered Shakespeare in his late 20s. And it had a huge impact on the pros that is very Shakespearian that would become the basis of "Moby Dick."
NNAMDIOnto Meegan (sp?) in Tacoma Park, Md. Meegan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MEEGANHi, I grew up in a family that read a lot, my parents read to us bedtime stories until we went off to college. And I'm following that with my kids and we've come across and read aloud a lot of young adult classics. But I'm also a reading teacher, high school reading teacher and I, you know, understandably with teaching reading skills to juniors and seniors.
MEEGANAnd I decided to expose them "Of Mice and Men" which is one of my very favorite books out there. And I read it, the whole thing aloud, over a series of weeks. And one of the kids in my class was barely literate and had never read a book before and he -- when we got to the end of the book where Lenny shoots George, hope I didn't give away the ending for anybody…
PHILBRICKSpoiler alert, yeah.
MEEGAN...and this guy -- I get choked up every time, he jumped up and he started chasing the room and his eyes were as big as sausage and he said, damn, I didn't know a book could do that.
NNAMDISeeing it through the mind's eye.
MEEGAN(unintelligible) yeah, it was just incredible. It was incredible. So, you know, that's why I kept teaching, was those kinds of experiences. And, you know, the class -- some of the classics that I'm most comfortable teaching, certainly, are doing all the things that you're seeing. And they're being brought by technology and other things to kids who wouldn't necessarily be able to read them in other, you know, on their own.
NNAMDIMeegan , thank you very much for your call. Have you experienced students who have had that? You might call it eureka moments, Susan?
SHREVEWell, I think what she described is so wonderful. And the fact that she's reading to them, which is like radio, which is what I loved as a little girl about radio...
SHREVE...is that it's all in your head. And I have PEN/Faulkner has a program of writers in schools and -- in which we send writers and their books into schools. And therefore, the writers are a little bit rock stars. We don't get that much chance to be rock stars. But with some of those students who've not been familiar with books at all in their lives, it -- I've had that experience. In terms of -- I've taught so many graduate students. And they come to books expecting eureka.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Meegan. Lists of the great novels include the works of Ralph Ellison, from time to time, V.S. Naipaul, Toni Morrison. But lists like this are often criticized for being too old, being too white, if you will. Are we starting to see more diversity in the works considered classics?
PHILBRICKI think so. You know, just the list you read off indicates that people are -- I think, that -- our sense of the cannon has expanded to accommodate the world. And that wasn't the case when I was an undergraduate. It was, you know, it was...
PHILBRICK...all white guys, yep. And never got passed into the -- well, it got into the 20th century, but it was a very specific group. And what I've really delighted in with my own children, who are now in their late 20s, is to see the diversity of what they're reading. And yet making, you know, as you mentioned earlier, making their own choices as to what they think they're going to return to. And so the cannon is evolving around us and really it's the readers who ultimately determine what the cannon is going to be.
NNAMDIAnd I know it was like that for me until I read my first V.S. Naipaul novel and there was I, in it. I kind of saw myself, people like me in it, and that's what reeled me in. Here is Chris is Silver Spring, Md. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISHi, I like the point about reading a book aloud being like a radio and that's how I experienced "Lord of the Rings" when I was a very young boy, from my father and that was ultimate for me. But what I was calling about was the way my high school teacher -- my high school English teacher dealt with "Moby Dick" was that he just cut the book in half and he eliminated every other chapter which had to do with, like, the mechanics of whaling and the life -- daily life on the ship,
CHRISWhich when I came back to it later, it was more interesting. But when he had to deal with a classroom full of people, you sort of cut straight to the action, which was an executive decision on his part which I think worked out and allowed him to teach the book...
NNAMDINow, that's funny because Nat says you can read "Moby Dick" like that.
PHILBRICKOh, I don't -- listen, I am not a purist. I think any -- a page of "Moby Dick" is important to read. And I applaud your high school teacher for any strategy that works is a good one. And as we -- you know, you also said that as you got older, those chapters, those sidebars that go in directions that have nothing to do with the plot, are some of the great stuff.
CHRISWell, then I had more experience with actually working a job and...
CHRIS...and learning skills and stuff like that. That stuff made more sense to me.
PHILBRICKRight. Right. But I think what's great about "Moby Dick" is just -- it's such a big expansive book, but it's broken up into all these little chapters. And so that, I think, it's sheer size actually really works when it comes to our modern day and age where we tend to have just brief moments available.
CHRISI remember him making that point. He said that Melville had made his living writing these travel logs and that he sort of incorporated that technique into the book and divided it up on purpose into these easily digestible chunks.
PHILBRICKYeah. Yeah. And you put them all together, it's an amazing process, but it does require a little patience and stick-to-it-ness and so -- and the older we get, I think, that -- the better we get at that.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Chris. People can be intimidated by heavy tomes, reluctant to read something that they could do bicep curls with or that they may take months to finish. How do you get readers past the intimidation factor when a book is 500 plus pages?
SHREVEWell, I thought that was interesting, what you said -- what was said about the dividing of "Moby Dick."
SHREVEBecause that's one of the ways you do it and hope that they are so engaged that they will eventually go back. But even if they don't, there is something there for them.
NNAMDIYou've planted a seed.
NNAMDIHere is Sharon in Woodbridge, Va. Sharon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHARONGood afternoon to you and your guests. I just wanted to say, I'm a reader and always have been. But I remember being introduced to "Anna Karenina" in AP English 12, back in the dinosaur days when I was in high school. And thinking that Anna was just the most romantic heroin I'd ever encountered. Well, I'm in a book club and revisited it when I was in my 30s and a mother and a wife. And remember thinking that Anna was the biggest twit I've ever met. I'm -- I'm like, why are you killing yourself over this cat? (unintelligible) .
SHARONSo I just wanted to say that I am a huge fan of introducing middle and high schoolers to the classics. And even those who read it like you, Kojo, and could've cursed the day it was handed to you...
NNAMDIThat was my friend, go ahead.
SHARON...it's something to come back to again and again. Especially if you are a reader. And I love how your perspectives on the work changes, as your life experiences change. That's all I wanted to say.
PHILBRICKWell, yeah, that's why "Moby Dick" has become, kind of, my personal bible. Because every time I pick it up, if some time has gone by, I'm looking at it from a different perspective. The book seems to change with you and that's the great thing about a classic. You know and you see characters in a different way, characters that you related to when you're 18 no longer are necessarily the ones you'd go with when you're in your 50s. And that's the good -- that makes it a classic, when you, you know, you have the impetus to go back to it.
NNAMDIGot to take a short because we, of course, in the middle of our fall membership campaign. So we're going to come back and ask you to become a member WAMU. And after that, we will continue our conversation on reading the classics. So if you have called, don't hang up, we will get to your call. If the lines are busy, go to our website kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. Sharon, thank you very much for your call. You can also send us a tweet @kojoshow or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on reading the classics. We're talking with Susan Richards Shreve. She's a professor teaching creative writing at George Mason University, and part of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation board of directors. She's also the author of numerous novels and a memoir called, "Warm Springs." Also in studio with us is Nathaniel Philbrick. He's a historian, author, and sailor. His latest book is "Why Read Moby Dick?"
NNAMDIOther books include "In the Heart of the Sea," and "Mayflower." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850, but I see we have a lot of callers on the line. So if you're trying to get through, you may want to go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there, or you may simply want to send us a tweet @kojoshow. Do you, Susan, worry about keeping the length of your own works within a certain page range?
SHREVEThe older I get, the shorter the books become.
SHREVEAnd I think part of it has to do with the fact that what I was trying to do earlier was kind of write a 21st -- 20th century, 19th century novel, and it's really a question of using only essential words. I mean, it -- the shortness of it has to do with has this book earned a lengthier story.
NNAMDIIn your case, Nat?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, I have -- keep vowing with each book to make it shorter, and unfortunately, they just keep getting longer, although the book I am now working on about the revolution, darn it, it is going to be shorter. But I, you know, my issue often is that when I begin a project, I think I know something about it, and quickly realize I know very little, and it then expands around that ignorance, and hopefully becomes something fun to follow.
PHILBRICKBut, you know, the size of it is I think a concern for me just because you don't want it to be too intimidating necessarily, but ultimately I think the material itself sort of determines the length...
NNAMDIAnd I heard that resolve when you said, darn it, that...
PHILBRICKYes, darn it.
NNAMDII'm writing a book not a book -- writing a book not a doorstop here. Onto the telephones again. Let's go to Will in Alexandria, Va. Will, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLYes, I am, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to say, Mr. Philbrick, I've read "In the Heart of the Sea" and "Mayflower," and they are destined to be future classics.
WILLI also want to say, Kojo, that one of the things about reading books like "Moby Dick" for me -- I'm a writer myself, and author of "Swimming with Crocodiles" if you're interested. But one of the things about it is that people like Melville, he died penniless and obscure in Pittsfield, Mass. I believe. And if Mr. Philbrick wants to talk about how he was rediscovered and how it went about becoming -- "Moby Dick" came about to be a classic again.
NNAMDIWill, that was my next question. You have foresight. Some widely considered classics like the work of Dickens are best sellers from the start. Others like the aforementioned "Moby Dick" sell few copies, receive little notice during the author's lifetime. How hard is it to predict which works will stand the test of time?
PHILBRICKI think it's very hard to predict and, you know, so many of the things we're infatuated with today probably are not gonna be around in 50 years, and Melville is one of those remarkable cases where the novel fell on deaf ears in 1851. It sold a total of around 3,000 copies by the time Melville had died. Much less than his first novel, which had been a best seller. And it wasn't really until after World War I that the novel began it ascension into being a classic.
PHILBRICKAnd I think the world had to get through World War I, experience that trauma, to begin to catch up to where Melville had been just prior to the Civil War. And since that time, it's been reinvented with each cataclysm. We have a new interpretation of Ahab, whether it's Hitler or BP Oil or whatever, the novel continues to resonate. But it is, you know, it is one of those unusual ones that was obscure at the time of the writer's death, poor Melville. He is not around to see where his novel went.
NNAMDIWatching the "60 Minutes" presentation this past Sunday Night on Vincent Van Gogh, same kind of feeling that you get...
NNAMDI...that wasn't appreciated while he was alive. Nat, it's my understanding that your work was recently honored in a rather unique way. How have your words been incorporated into the new library at the Mass Maritime Academy?
PHILBRICKYeah. It is a unique way. There's a library at the Mass Maritime -- Massachusetts Maritime Academy, and they have a stairwell, a four-story stairwell, and it's got a kind of illuminated center portion in which all of "In the Heart of the Sea" has been transcribed. And so you could actually begin at the top, you know, you could actually read the entire book up and down going, you know, right there. And I'm still overwhelmed by that and I don't quite know what to make of it.
NNAMDICongratulations to you. Will, thank you very much for your call. What's the name of your book?
WILLIt's called "Swimming with Crocodiles."
NNAMDIOkay. Will, thank you so much for your call. We move onto Mary in Bristol, Va. Mary, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARYGood morning, Kojo. I enjoy your show so much. I've never considered myself a deep thinker or a profound reader, and I don't read -- I read more fluff novels is the way I call them. But my favorites that I think are classics are "Jane Eyre" and "Gone with the Wind," and they're the only books that I read repeatedly. And I think -- because both of them are romances, and I am a romantic at heart, and I can't say which one is my favorite, but I enjoy them both so much.
NNAMDIDo you find something new every time you read them?
MARYYes, I do. And with "Gone with the Wind," whether I read the book or watch the movie, I'm always hoping that they are not going to be at odds and Scarlet and Rhett are going to come together and he's not gonna have that final comment and walk out the door, you know, but it never changes the ending no matter how much I hope.
NNAMDII find that fascinating, Susan Richards Shreve, that despite having read the book before and know how it's going to turn out, the mind can still operate in a way that makes you want what you want to happen.
SHREVEIt's sort of wonderful. It says, at least in terms of fiction, in a way what you hope will happen. The end is always the hardest for a writer to write.
NNAMDIIt doesn't matter how many times you read it. Here is Steve in -- and Mary, thank you for your call. Here is Steve in Potomac, Md. Steve, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
STEVEHi, Kojo. I loved your question about doing bicep curls because I ended up becoming a writer in life and authoring a couple of books, but I was also one of these kids whose mother -- my mom happened to be a writer and an avid reader, and was constantly imploring me to read, read, read. And of course, I was, you know, grabbing my mitt and running out the door, but I did take very much to short stories. You know, O'Henry's (word?) later in life it enabled me to enjoy Norman Maclean's writing.
STEVEAnd I just wanted to ask your panelists to talk a little bit about what they might consider some classic short stories, and I also wanted to ask about books about writing that they like. I happen to like Phil Gerard's "Writing A Book That Makes A Difference." Thank you.
SHREVEWell, Chekhov, certainly in terms of writing...
SHREVE...short stories, and it's interesting. I think of the short stories being very different than the novel, and it may be because I don't write them, they seem extremely difficult to write. They're so intensely compact and require a kind of perfection that the broad scope of a novelist's sort of larger landscape doesn't, but I think that we have some wonderful -- it's particularly American form, the short story, and I think of Alice Monroe today, and Richard Ford, John Cheever, John Updike wrote some really amazing stories.
SHREVEI like reading short stories and anthologies better than reading a whole book of short stories. Somehow the sense of a whole book of a single writer's short stories disconnected is never as satisfactory.
NNAMDIAnd Nat, any books about writing?
PHILBRICKYeah. Stephen King's "On Writing."
SHREVEOh, yes. That's true.
PHILBRICKI found that -- I'm a Stephen King fan and all my stories are kind of horror stories one way or another. But that book "On Writing," I think, really gets sort of the nuts and bolts of what you're trying to do in a very accessible, unpretentious way, and so I found that book to be really helpful.
NNAMDISteve, thank you very much for your call. We asked on Twitter, what are your favorite classic books, and got several responses. We got a tweet from Nicole, "I love 'Canterbury Tales.' Great characters and it has funny little anecdotes about people and life." I certainly agree. We got a tweet from Brenda. "I just read Jane Austen's 'Persuasion,' and now I'm reading 'Sense and Sensibility.'" On Facebook, we asked, do you think authors like Dickens, Austen, and Melville hold relevance for us today, and we got this Facebook comment from Sara.
NNAMDI"Some classics are easy to read, and others are not. Sometimes the ones that are not need to be given time to enlighten the reader. And how about some nonfiction? Plato?" An e-mail question we got from Laura. "First of all, I was listening to your show on classic books in the car. Upon returning home, I realized I completely forgot one of my errands because I was so interested in the program. I'm in my late 30s and was never a good reader due to a learning disability. There are so many classic books that I am intimidated by. Can you offer a suggestion on where to begin? I like biographies and stories with poetry and/or symbolism." Starting with you, Susan?
SHREVEThat's an interesting and a kind of difficult question. I think that biographies the -- a lot of biographies, and biographies are often quite long, but biographies have, for someone who's not really interested in reading, who finds it difficult, you're reading a life story, you're meeting a character, you're getting to know them, and I think in looking for biographies, the ones that I tend to pick up are often people who interest me to begin with, Cleopatra most recently. But I think it has to do with what you're interested in, what person interests you, and you'll probably be interested in their life.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from Liz. "Classics act as muses for new creations across mediums today. Example, Tristan Lowe's Mocha Dick, a colossal 52-foot-long sculptural recreation of the real-life albino sperm whale that terrorized early 19th century whaling vessels near Mocha Island in South Pacific." Nat, you say that contained in the pages of "Moby Dick" is nothing less than the genetic code of America, and that it's the one book that deserves to be called our American Bible. No faint praise. What lessons can we learn from "Moby Dick" in particular?
PHILBRICKWell, you know, because he -- the country was on the edge of the Civil War in 1850, and Melville's father-in-law was a judge in Boston involved with the ramifications of the passage of the fugitive slave law, which meant that a slave escaping from the south had to be returned from the north. And this meant that suddenly slavery was not just a local southern concern. All of the country was involved. And so the -- you could -- it was beginning to tear the country apart, and you could sort of see what was happening.
PHILBRICKAnd Melville, while he was working on this novel about whaling, Boston was experiencing riots, all sorts of unrest, and as a consequence, that sense of being on the edge of a catastrophe is there, and so I think "Moby Dick" is always going to be relevant because it contains that sense of America undergoing a crisis, and particularly today we always seem to be on the edge of a new crisis.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Nathaniel Philbrick is a historian, author, and sailor. His latest work is "Why Read Moby Dick?" Among other books, he's written "In the Heart of the Sea," and "Mayflower." Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDISusan Richards Shreve is a professor teaching creative writing at George Mason University. She's part of the PEN/Faulkner's Foundation board of directors. She's also the author of numerous novels and a memoir, "Warm Springs." Susan Richards Shreve, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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