Doug Ross mentioning The Canterbury Tales back on this post — which I never read (somehow, I escaped its being required of me in school) — reminds me of something I'm reading at the moment and sort of enjoying, much to my surprise:
For years — for decades in fact; almost four of them — I refused to read Moby Dick on principle. You see, we spent like six weeks on it in my honors English class in the 11th grade at Robinson High School in Tampa, and I never did read it, at least not past "Call me Ishmael." And yet I got an A-plus on the six weeks test on the book. How? First, because it was an essay test — which always gave me a leg up in school. Multiple choice can be such a brutally effective means of telling whether you actually know the material. With an essay, you can be careful to stick to what you know you know, and steer clear of your blank spots. And some, but not all, teachers are dazzled by a nicely worded essay. Although not all teachers — I had one prof in college who wrote on one of my better B.S. efforts something like, "Nicely written; I enjoyed it. But obviously you are not familiar with the material." Enough teachers were snowed for me to get by, though. And I confess this played a not inconsiderable part in my decision to write for a living.
Also — and this is the bigger point — how on Earth could I possibly not be familiar with all the themes, characters and plot after six weeks of listening to people talk and talk and talk about it in class, even if I was only half-listening, which was probably the case?
Anyway, I took such perverse pride in that grade — one of my most dramatic coups of skating without having done the work in my educational career — that I avoided reading the book subsequently because I didn't want to spoil the perfection of my slacker record. I had read — and enjoyed — other books years after I was supposed to have read them in school. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for instance. But I kept myself pure on Melville.
But I picked up a copy recently, tempted by the fact that I'm such a huge fan of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring tales and thinking I might actually enjoy this one, although not having high expectations.
And you know what? While I doubt it will ever be my favorite novel, I've been really surprised by how accessible it is. I mean, I always had the impression (based on the way the people who actually read it in school groaned about the experience) that it was just something that no one in our era could possibly relate to, that it was way too 19th century for that (and not in a fun way, like Mark Twain). But on the contrary, I'm struck by how modern its tone and style is in parts. Also, it's very bite-sized — the chapters are no longer than a typical newspaper column, and each one a well-crafted nugget all by its lonesome. So you can read a chapter, think "That wasn't so bad," then read another, and really feel like you're making progress without a lot of time invested all at once. (Try that with Dostoevsky, someone I actually did read and enjoy when I was supposed to in college, but not a guy you'd describe as "accessible" in the sense that I mean here.)
Far from being some boring old guy telling us stuff in boring old language, Ishmael as a narrator is actually sort of hiply ironic. He has a detachment and amusement toward his heavy subject material that is very late-20th century. And sometimes, the language itself goes along with the tone. For instance, in this passage very early in the book, describing a painting he puzzled over at The Spouter Inn:
Who'd have thought Melville could have written such a line as "A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted?" That is a very New Journalism use of language; one could imagine Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson being responsible for it. Or, to speak in fiction terms, it can be almost as modern-feeling as Nick Hornby or Roddy Doyle. It strikes me that way, anyway. Way more modern-seeming than much-later writers such as James Joyce or Fitzgerald or even Hemingway (who sounded WAY modern in the 20s, I suppose, but not so much later on).
As I read on, Ishmael is not what I'd call a likable character — he's too much of a wise guy for that, tossing out ironic comments about everyone and everything. But he's certainly accessible.
And that surprised me.