How I Learned to Love Melville: Good For You High School Literature by Roberta Ohlinger-Johnson
Up until lately, I’ve loved modern literature. So many exciting women and minority authors writing: Barbara Kingsolver, Banana Yoshimoto, Yann Martel, Salmon Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, the list goes on. The old guard always seemed, well, old to me: full of impenetrable language and irrelevant social issues. Goodbye Hawthorne! Goodbye Austin! Goodbye High School Reading Lists! Irrelevant plot lines including anything involving the fate of the fallen woman or metaphors of subjugated races has automatically fallen off my desk. Goodbye, Tolstoy! Goodbye Forster!.
My friend made us read Bartleby the Scrivener at bookclub. And it began impenetrably. What is a scrivener you ask? A scrivener turns out to be a person who – in the age before copy machines – made copies, in this case, for a lawyer. And in my day job, I am a lawyer. And the lawyer in this story is powerless in the face of his employee’s “I would prefer not to”. Which is an atrocious improper subjunctive tense combined with a dangling infinitive, in addition to said employee’s insubordination.
I was hooked. I found Melville to be funny, insightful, and rediscovered the sense of ambiguity that makes classic literature so timeless–instead of rushing through a whirl-wind plot willy-nilly to get to the end. You have to soak it in, and as I proceeded to read Moby Dick, I discovered truths so mind blowing it requires small bites and slow reading:
“It is not down in any map; true places never are.”
(Side note: I still read Gone Girl in an evening. And I would do it again.)
After my experience with Melville, I returned to the classic Wuthering Heights, and, as an adult, found an entirely new set of truths. I wonder how a young, virginal country girl such as Emily Bronte could have such insights into marital relationships. As a lawyer I often struggle to bring the plight of people wronged to light, often children and women, and found a dark lens of congeniality in this novel.
Today, though I still love to whisk through an Ann Patchett novel, when I need solid substance and inspiration, I return to the classics I long avoided giving me the comfort of experience across divergent time and space.
Roberta Ohlinger-Johnson is a Las Vegas attorney known for working with families and children. When she’s not working, she loves law and literature, hiking, local travel, and kayaking on Lake Mead. Visit her at her blog: http://theliteratilawyer.wordpress.com.
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