Past, Present, and Future

by Gayle Bartos-Pool

books-on-shelfSome months ago there was an unbelievable news story on TV. The gist was that some teachers no longer wanted to teach the classics. Unlike my reaction to other things I have heard on TV news shows (or the Internet), I actually believed the report. My snarky first reaction was that the teachers probably couldn’t read themselves and didn’t want their students to know they were illiterate. I’m still tossing around that idea.

 

The problem is: that story won’t go away. I tried to analyze the reasoning behind the decision to ban the classics and came to the conclusion that there is no reasoning involved. It’s stupid. I wrote a blog back then starting with this same premise and then went on to sing the praises of two female authors, Mary Roberts Rinehart and Anna Katharine Green who were both born in the mid-to-late1800s. I love their work.

 

So now I am going to introduce you to a few more gems that you might not know, or if you know them, you might not have read them. Paul D. Marks mentioned this particular book in one of his recent blogs, so there must be something in going back and reading the classics.

The Count of Monte Cristo bookThe Count of Monte Cristo movie

First is Alexandre Dumas (Pere). The book I recently finished was The Count of Monte Cristo. If you have seen the recent movie, you saw a very nice production, but it veered from the original story like the car chase in Bullitt. The writer/director of the movie had to cut it down to size because there are 117 chapters. That’s a lot of cutting. They rewrote the ending, too. There was so much in the book; I was breathless after finishing it. And I loved it.

 

The book evolved in basically a series of short stories that slowly pieced together the main character’s life. There was a lot of life there. The writing shows us contemporary authors what character development can be if you know your character. No shallow, two-dimensional guy here. There were layers and nuances and glimpses inside this guy that made him real. The story unfolded like a beautiful flower opening.

 

But even Shakespeare (1564-1616) is more than readable. His stories have been contemporized, but the plots and characters are solid. They even set Romeo and Juliet to music in Westside Story. The plot was universal.

 

Mark Twain (1835-1910) turned out books that both kids and adults can enjoy. I read him as a kid and when I read him again as an adult I saw even more things in those pages.

 

Recently I have been reading E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946). He was known as the Prince of Storytellers. He wrote a hundred novels and numerous short stories. Many of his works were turned into silent movies. What stuns me is how contemporary his work is. They might deal with a time long ago, but the feeling and the thoughts could have been written today. True, there are no car chases or throbbing sex scenes, but there is a story, a plot, stuff happening. And no filler.

 

We were just watching the movie Youngblood Hawke (1964) about a hot-shot new writer hitting the New York literary scene. The guy’s first book was sensational, his second book was trash. During the launch party, a famed reviewer said how the margins were too wide, the type too large, and the story filled with padding. He said it should have been a novella.

 

Lots of contemporary books are written with superfluous stuff. Too many sequels to fairly nice books are filled with redundancy. The characters are strictly stock with not much personality, and those are often the main characters. These books by the Old Masters don’t have filling or padding or fluff. Not even in the 117 chapters in The Count of Monte Cristo.

 

Phillips Oppenheim, a British author, filled his pages with new things on every page. In Peter Ruff and the Double-Four, a collection of short stories about the same character, his main character starts out as a very shady guy who decides to use his criminal expertise to sometimes thwart the bad guys and sometimes help them see the error of their ways. The character is dead clever and is marvelously one step ahead, even when you don’t see it coming.

The Illustrious Prince Book.pngThe Illustrious Prince movie

In both The Devil’s Paw and The Illustrious Prince, he brings some brilliant insights to spying during the early part of the Great War. The 1923 movie made from The Illustrious Prince totally rewrote the story, but maybe it was a good movie. Havoc was a pre-war tome as well. But each gives the reader not only an interesting story, but also a glimpse of the times in which they were written. Dare I say: the history of those times, lest it be forgotten.

Fahrenheit 451

Even Ray Bradbury’s science fiction novels and stories give a look at the thinking during his brilliant literary career. We all know science fiction is just a way of telling what is happening now and how it might manifest itself in the future. His Fahrenheit 451 is about book burning in the future, a time when the classics were banned. Sound familiar?

 

One of the reasons I have so enjoyed these older works is because they are so damn well written. I read contemporary stuff. Many of my writer-friends turn out some darn good work and they recommend other authors to me. Some are good, some aren’t. Sometimes it’s just a matter of taste. Sometimes they just stink. At my age, I will actually put down a book never to pick it up again because I have better things to do with my time if the book has absolutely nothing to offer.

 

Contemporary authors occasionally write historical stories. A good author does a ton of research and if they do the job well, it shows. Sometimes the dialogue might be more modern, but unless you want your reader to carry a large dictionary with them, you keep the words fairly current.

 

While reading these older works, I was amazed how contemporary the words and phrases were. I do understand that publishers revise many of the classics to make them more readable, but still, some of these are 70-100-150 years old. A few words might be archaic, but the meaning that comes through is very clear. Most of these books have themes that sound like they were written today. That is the mark of a very good writer. Some themes are universal and timeless.

 

But mostly their work endures… as long as people can still find them somewhere. I have a CD collection with 10,000 books on it. That’s where I have been reading these classics. At least they are safe for a while. Read on.

 

The picture below is me with the inimitable Ray Bradbury. God Bless him. (The picture was taken by our very own Jackie Houchin.)

RayGayleClose

Author: gbpool

A former private detective and once a reporter for a small weekly newspaper, Gayle Bartos-Pool (writing as G.B. Pool) writes two detective series: the Gin Caulfield P.I. series (Media Justice, Hedge Bet & Damning Evidence) and The Johnny Casino Casebook Series. She also penned a series of spy novels, The SPYGAME Trilogy: The Odd Man, Dry Bones, and Star Power. She has a collection of short stories in From Light To DARK, as well as novels: Eddie Buick’s Last Case, Enchanted: The Ring, The Rose, and The Rapier, The Santa Claus Singer, and three delightful holiday storied, Bearnard’s Christmas, The Santa Claus Machine, and Every Castle Needs a Dragon. Also published: CAVERNS and Second Chance. She is the former Speakers Bureau Director for Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles and also a member of Mystery Writers of America and The Woman’s Club of Hollywood. She teaches writing classes: “Anatomy of a Short Story,” (The Anatomy of a Short Story Workbook is available.) “How To Write Convincing Dialogue” and “Writing a Killer Opening Line” in sunny Southern California. Website: www.gbpool.com.

23 thoughts on “Past, Present, and Future”

  1. Gayle, thanks for your reminder about the classics. I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading my favorites: anything by Willa Cather; Jane Eyre; Anna Karenina; Woman in White, Middlemarch, Of Human Bondage, and countless others. I haven’t yet read Count of Monte Cristo, and I keep saying I’ll get to War and Peace.

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    1. I have The Woman in White. That’s another one to add to everybody’s list. I’ll have to read Jane Eyre. Loved the movie. Thanks for adding to our reading list, Maggie.

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  2. I found myself nodding my head often during your post, Gayle. And I smiled broadly when you mentioned your CD collection. Many times I fall asleep listening to audio books on my Kindle (love them and Audible makes it so easy), and they’re my favorite Classics–more often then not mystery classics. Love the picture of you and Ray Bradbury! Excellent post.

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    1. I will listen to some of these older books on my Kindle while I iron. A great way to work and enlighten oneself at the same time. I so enjoyed your last book as an audio book. What a great way to “read” new stuff. Thanks, Mad.

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      1. When I listen to a regular e-Book, not an audible book, it is a mechanical voice that reads, but I very comfortable with that voice and totally enjoy it reading to me. The same voice is on WORD Text to Speech that I use when I start editing my books on my computer. When that little voice says a word, that’s what I wrote. If I don’t like it; I change the word.

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  3. Wow, excellent post. (I hope you shared the link to it with Paul D. Marks!) You’ve given good examples of classics and great reasons why we should read them. I confess I haven’t read any of the masterpieces of old recently – seems I just don’t have the time. But I agree, those are the books that you cherish and reread long after the first time. I have some oldies in my bookcase that I pull out to enjoy again and again. Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel is one; another, Daphne du Maurier’s Frenchmen’s Creek. A question: Has reading these classics recently influenced your writing style or choice of characters and plot?

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    1. I forgot another classic that is fun to read and reread – Daniel Defoe’s Robinson and Crusoe. Actually it is the first audio book I ever listened to as part of my Books On Tape membership. (I’d read the print version earlier.) Now, like Madeline, I’m a member of Audible and listen to more books than I probably read. I can do it while driving, walking, gardening, making stew or applesauce or cheezy chicken tenders, and before falling asleep, like Madeline. (Except I have to reverse it a few minutes to the place I remember!) You really must try them Jacqueline Vick.

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      1. Jackie H, my current Kindle (early Fire) has a timer (on mine on same page as pause and start) so you can set it to go off after certain times like five mins, fifteen, etc. Keeps me from having to figure out where I fell asleep! Currently going through all Ngaio Marsh books. And Jackie V., Patrick Malahide (sp) and Hugh Frasier have great voices! (smile)

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    2. Yes, Jackie. Reading these older books has convinced me that filling pages with fluff and nonsense is poor writing. And a good plot, filled with great tidbits and settings, and solid characters with believable characteristics and not over-the-top quirks, make for a better story. It’s the difference between a great meal and a fat-filled snack.

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  4. Like Madeline, I nodded a lot while reading your post. The Classics aren’t just examples of exemplary writing. They bring important themes to the reader. I might cringe at some of the language in Huckleberry Finn, but the book subtly teaches a great lesson. Even better, these books raise questions that should be discussed in a classroom. Thank you for suggesting books and authors I have never read. If I could throw in my own recommendations, A Separate Peace and Rebecca.

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    1. Mahalo from Maui. When I used to commute an hour plus each way to work, I often listened to books on tape (before CDs became the standard). Although I chose a variety of titles, I found listening to them an excellent way to ‘read’ many of the classics. Even the long, drawn out passages were entertaining, especially with a reader who brought out the subtle nuances in the passages. With kids so busy with activities, playing books in the car while being shuttled from activity to activity would be a great way to introduce them (and us) to the glory of literature. Great post.

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      1. Aloha. And you have a great idea about parents playing a CD of some great old book while driving. Just think what a summer vacation would be like if those 6-8 hour daily drives to the vacation spot were filled with books on tape. Love it.

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    2. Jackie V., So many of these old, fiction books are a slice of history. They show life as it was. Nothing like learning while being entertained.

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  5. Good post, Gayle, I’ll have to read some of these classics that I’ve missed. Unfortunately, I think public schools have fallen into the notion that anything association with a Dead White European/American Male is “bad.” A local school district is having issues over assigned reading material (written by a modern author) that some parents say is full of language and situations they don’t want their kids to read. So why can’t schools use non-controversial “old” books? Kids today can’t read anything that’s older than their smartphones.

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    1. You are so right, Sally. Some of these old books won’t even spell out the word d–n. And that’s about as rough as the text gets, but they tell the story. Not much to learn if everything is a four-letter word. And parents should go to PTA meetings. That’s what the “P” stands for.

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    1. So many of these older books are free on Amazon Kindle. Maybe if kids see others read, they will pick up their Internet gadget and read something, too.

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  6. Great post, GB! I had never heard of Phillips Oppenheim but will add him to my reading queue. Never thought of listening to books while cleaning house, but what a great idea! Listening to or reading the classics always inspires me to try harder with my own writing, and as you well know, my favorite classic is “Gone with the Wind.” When faced with a plot problem, I often ask myself, “What would Scarlett do?” The book is like a master class in character development, plotting, and pacing. Hope we can keep the classics alive for the next generation!

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    1. One thing I remember from reading GWTW was the fabulous story about Scarlet’s mother. She wasn’t featured in the movie other than dead, but the book really wrote a full character study on her. You can see where Scarlet got her moxie. I guess I love the attention to detail in these older books. And the insight. And the depth of character… Just give me that in a story and I’m happy.

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