How do you choose your next book to read? It’s a difficult question to answer, right? Some mysterious mixture of serendipity, subconscious awareness, and mood comes together to make me pull a specific book off the shelf and say, “Yes, this one.”
A few weeks ago, I knew I’d be entering a busy period between work and teaching, and I wanted to read something that wasn’t too demanding. Something that would envelope me like a hot cup of tea or make me smile like an old episode of Happy Days.
My eye landed on Anne of Green Gables. The perfect choice! I hadn’t read it since I was a girl. Now I’ve been whisked away to Prince Edward Island and the Lake of Shining Waters with chatty, imaginative Anne. (That’s Anne with an “e” thank you very much.) It’s every bit as charming as I remembered.
You may be familiar with the story: the Cuthberts have decided to adopt a boy from the local orphanage to help out around their farm. When the orphanage sends Anne instead, the Cuthberts nearly return her. She’s not at all what they were looking for. Anne grows on them, staying true to herself, despite many innocent mix-ups.
Boy, how times have changed, and I don’t only mean in terms of social norms. The craft of fiction (and nonfiction for that matter) isn’t static. It’s a living, breathing art that’s evolving. Just as the Renaissance gave way to Baroque and Celine Dion led to Idina Menzel, so too do styles in literature. We read with a 21st century mindset. I can appreciate Dickens, but my modern sensibilities balk at pages (literally) of description of fog. (Note: if you find fog intriguing, Dickens is your guy.)
I noticed this as I was reading Anne of Green Gables. The way Montgomery told the story of a young orphan girl is different from the way John Green or Rainbow Rowell would tell the same story today. Some are subtle and some are glaring. One that stood out immediately was dialogue. While these dialogue tags were commonplace in early modern stories, they are discouraged now, and for good reason.
- “It’s so nice to be appreciated,” sighed Anne rapturously.
- “I’ll try to be a model pupil,” agreed Anne dolefully.
- “I don’t think there’s much chance of you dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.
- “I must go home,” repeated Diana, stupidly but determinedly.
- “Now please help yourself, Diana,” she said politely.
- “It was dreadful of me to forget,” said Anne apologetically.
I could go on. About half of the dialogue used tags other than “said” or added an adverb to describe how the dialogue was spoken. It was all I could do not to get a red pen and mark up the book.
As author Elmore Leonard said (only partially tongue in cheek), “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”
So why bother reading classics? We may not want to emulate the omniscient POV or the abundance of adverbs, but classics are classics for a reason. They provide a snapshot of a time and place and writing style.We learn what was important to people in the Jazz Age or what life was like in mid-19th century Russia because someone put ink to paper. They are a conversation between author and reader, who may have lived thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. We can still find value in the conversation.
And styles have a habit of coming back around. That’s why I’m still holding onto my circa-1983 Madonna lace gloves. You never know.
What was the last classic novel or essay you read?
Have a great weekend, everyone!