It’s Labour Day weekend, the time of year when people do things like head up to the cottage for one last hurrah, spend an extra day at the beach lazily lounging about, or stroll the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition. If you’re like me, you’re spending the weekend bunkered down struggling through the penultimate Summer Reading List choice, the second-to-last Oprah pick I may ever read in my life, and the only classic selection on the list: Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son.
The loud rumbling you heard all weekend? That wasn’t the air show, that was the sound of me groaning.
For me, reading the classics is like eating your vegetables or working out. You do it because it’s good for you. You feel great about it after and casually mention the accomplishment as often as possible, but during the process you’d rather be doing anything else.
The classics aren’t terrible reads. Quite the opposite: they enter the literary canon because they are good or were popular. Or, in rare occasions, both. The classics capture moments in our collective cultural history, transport us to different worlds, and showcase historical literary trends. They are important and they need to be read to better understand who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. They are the cornerstone for a comprehensive literary education. Unfortunately, they are often tied to a curriculum that is standardized, irrelevant, and just plain boring, making it difficult to demonstrate to students why they should be reading these books and why they should care in the first place.
I hate the classics because I hated high-school English. I went to a small high school where there was one English class per grade, offered twice a semester. It was a required course, so it was always packed. After acing Grade 10 science, I opted to take Grade 11 physics in second semester, requiring the school to juggle my schedule and leaving only one Grade 10 English available to me.
The teacher refused to let me in.
Dombey and Son is one of Dickens’ lesser known works. It’s not so much about a father and son as it is about father and daughter because (spoiler!) the beloved son is weak and ill and passes away when he is six years old. The daughter, who is strong, smart, passionate, and stubborn, is neglected and ignored by her father because she is a girl. This is not cool and instead of declaring her father a misogynist asshole, she spends most of her life trying to earn his love and respect. Of course, on his deathbed, he declares his love for her by ignoring her son (oh the irony), and all is well.
The English class already had 32 students in it, many of them considered “difficult.” I could easily take physics next year. If I didn’t take English in grade 10 that year, my entire high school schedule would be thrown off and there was a possibility I wouldn’t graduate. After my angry parents, a confused principal, and an overworked teacher battled it out, a conclusion was reached: I could take English as a correspondence course and use that now-free block as time to conduct my work. I worked at my own pace and reveled in the freedom the correspondence course gave me, gleefully writing an essays about 10 Things I Hate About You and the Baby-Sitters Club. But it was a solitary experience, and a lonely one. There were no debates with fellow students, no hilarious reenactments of Shakespearean plays, no collective groans about the latest lame book we had to read. It was me, in the library, sorting through what The Chrysalids meant, alone.
Dombey and Son is classic Dickens and, I’ll admit, it was a fun read. There are mad-cap antics, colourful characters, and playful language. Oprah had to get a classic book on this list somewhere, so it might as well be a light-hearted surprise and not a heavy-hitter. It is summer, after all.
But every piece of classical literature takes me back to Grade 10, where I fought for the opportunity to challenge myself and struggled through Dickens, Fitzgerald, and Margaret Laurence alone because my high school was overcrowded, underfunded, and really, really small.
Illustration by Brian McLachlan/Torontoist