'Tis the Best of Things, Part three
by Patty Morwood
In earlier blog entries, I wrote on the joy of reading good books and then chatting with girlfriends about them; in a second blog essay I gave suggestions for establishing and maintaining a Literary Club, and what a literary club, as opposed to a book club, really is. This essay, the third in a series, is a glimpse into being part of a literary club that is committed long-term to reading the best of the world's stories.
In my world, literary women are readers who want to read and discuss the best literature of the nations. You know, those stories countries like to export as the most outstanding of their literary works, works that show their beloved country's unique character, culture, and history. Most of us term these stories “classic” literature; they are seldom what we know today as the best-sellers. Novels labeled “classic” are known for their excellent language, characters who are either wholeheartedly loved or violently detested, and compelling themes. The nations' great books showcase their people's unique characteristics and experiences and yet they are universal in so many ways.
I asked two of my literary club members to talk with me about the advantages of being in a literary club focused on the world's literary classics.
What first attracted you to a literary club where great classics are read and discussed?
Anne: “I wanted to engage in intelligent discussion that would challenge my thinking. My other book club reads current 'best sellers' which definitely hasn't made them worthwhile to read, much less discuss. Those discussions weren't meaningful or even in-depth. I was ready for real engagement and other kinds of readers, especially women who willingly would read and discuss with a Christian lens.
Betsy: “I was looking for a group that would discuss the universals, not just current perspectives laced with divisive ideology. And anyway, I've always loved the classics.”
Describe how discussions among the ladies with broad literary insights and differing abilities enlarge your perspectives on analyzing literature.
Betsy: “Being with women who are committed to reading the book every month and attending Literary prepared to discuss keeps us all coming in the same manner. Insights come from being well-read lovers of books, stories, people and real life. Our faith is at the heart of each of our perspectives, but it is not a narrowing of viewpoint; I think it expands our compassion and interest in the human experience. Most if not all the women studied literature, history, or some other of the arts in college, so there is a somewhat scholarly insight that enriches our discussions. But don't let your level of formal education keep you from a literary club; in such a group as this your education will be continued and enriched, no matter who you are.”
Anne: “I appreciate the ladies who research the history surrounding the book's story, the author, or the work itself. There are those who help identify literary devices or have read the book more than once; they see authors' works in different ways. Their insights are usually multi-layered.
“I love fellowship among women. I first found it as a collegian and alumna with my sorority leadership responsibilities, then again with Christian women during my Emmaus experiences, and again with this wonderful group of literary women. We are an active, energizing and collaborative group. I love how everyone shares, does not judge, and encourages each other. There is total freedom to dislike an author, a book, or a particular genre or style of writing.”
What are the benefits to doing classics with Christians who like to view a work through a Scriptural lens and then compare their ideas and insights with other Christians?
Anne: “It helps the club realize how large God is, how His truth has influenced writers and cultures throughout time, more so than just reading the book alone without discussion with others. I am also encouraged to 'see' God in literary works and in history, when oftentimes other groups with whom I might discuss literature will never be able to identify or accept a Christian influence in something they are reading. Often in secular discussion groups I feel a work is more easily dismissed BECAUSE it has a clear Christian theme of redemption … and it's even used to criticize the piece.”
Has literary club changed the way you read both classics and non-classic books?
Anne: “I have become much more aware of the differences between excellent and just good writing. Modern novels rarely reach the excellence-bar anymore, but it is very satisfying to read literary classics. I have learned how to delve into the deeper elements of a literary work and appreciate the different ways authors construct their stories.”
Do you take notes on our literary discussions?
Anne: “I absolutely take notes on discussions! For one, I'd never remember what all we said! Plus, I want to go back to the book and reread it through others' eyes. And I like to use the notes when I recommend the book to others, or when I discuss it with family.”
Can you explain something from our reads that has deeply intrigued you in some way.
Betsy: “There are two books, very different in themselves, that I think showcase a proud woman's surrender at the end of a long life; each woman loses everything but each woman gains her own soul.One is Psyche in C.S. Lewis' Till we Have Faces, a retelling of an ancient myth. And the other is Kristen in Sigrid Undset's Kristen Lavrensdatter. Both women are so richly drawn that it seems they could be you or I. Psyche lives in a pre-Christian world permeated with superstitious paganism; Kristen is a young wife in Medieval Norway. Both are vividly portrayed in all their beauty, brokenness and humanity. The reader begins to love them, empathize and understand them, and even hate them at times. Finally, the reader gives each of them over to the mercy of God, just as their creator did in the first place.
Anne: “When reading Watership Down by Richard Adams, I was so intrigued with the 'roles' each rabbit played. There were the leader, the sage, the brawn, the storyteller, the jester. I was fascinated at how well developed the characters were and how true to their character they stayed. I had not had that appreciation before reading that book.”
Is there a character that stands out to you, whether negatively or positively?
Anne: “I looked forward to discussing Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It was a complex novel with well-developed characters and a commentary on the human condition that is timeless. The psychological descent into madness of the main character Rodion Raskolnikoy was superbly done. His internal struggle with his place in 1860s St. Petersburg – his delusion of being 'elite' was due primarily to being educated while yet impoverished – was fascinating. The condescension he holds for others is so common in our own society today.
“If only we all could see this character flaw in ourselves! On face value it is a product of socialist Russia, but this is a character one continues to find throughout history and in many great literary classics. When he crosses the line from reality to fantasy and acts out his previously only-theoretical murder, Dostoevsky is able to keep this man a sympathetic victim in readers' eyes.
“I admired the skillful writing that pulled me into each character and each internal struggle. Raskolnikoy's elitism reaches its extreme when he sees himself as above the law. Do we not see this in many of our leaders, bosses, politicians today? Raskolnikov is a character not just reflective of 1860s Russia, but one who exists in our own current world.
“While some of our group thinks Dostoevsky depressing, I find him refreshing. He reveals the filth that exists in society, and in the hearts of mankind. He directs us to a redemption that cannot be provided by society or government or law.
“These observations are just a tip of the iceberg as to what we discuss in our literary group; the value in hearing other perspectives, interpretations and emotional responses to what we read augments the excellence of the books we read. It really is incredible!
“I am looking forward to our next discussion of Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall."
What last word would you like to convey?
Betsy: “Literary Club is a gift in my life. It's a blessing. I always felt that my education was spotty. However, I have been learning and growing all these years as a reader and thinker … while I lived my regular life cleaning, cooking, and caring for three growing boys. We literary girls are of different ages and backgrounds and Christian denominations and it all adds depth. What a privilege to meet with these kindred spirits who love truth and beauty!”
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