Guest blogger: Allison Pittman
My newest novel, The Seamstress, takes an obscure character from one of my favorite classic novels, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, and gives her a life and story of her own. Hers is a story that lives full on the page, but I’d love to see my readers have their interest piqued enough to go and read her debut. In fact, there are many reasons why modern readers should devote some titles for their Goodreads challenge to more classic works of literature. Here are just a few:
- The Powerful Prose. Let’s face it, with rare exceptions, modern writers fall short in capturing the pure art of prose. Our sentences are choppy. Thoughts truncated. We lean on pop-culture references in contemporary works, and BBC set decor in historicals. We cater to short attention spans and the fast-paced world that offers little respect to the art form that was once at the center stage of the masses. Take, for instance, this treasure from Wuthering Heights, in which Catherine Earnshaw comes to terms with her love for Heathcliff: “My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it.—My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary.”
I mean . . . look at the syntax! The complexity of the sentence structure, and the variety of sentences within the passage. The parallelism. The spooling out of the metaphor of the foliage and the woods. Modern writers don’t always trust their readers with the task of following an intricate passage, or of putting up with authorsplaining a metaphor.
- The Brain Benefits. According to research conducted at Michigan State University, the “cognitive complexity” of reading classic literature provides a great booster to our brains. When study participants had their brains monitored while reading works of Jane Austen, researchers found their blood flow increased in areas of the brain usually associated with tasks requiring close attention, such as studying or calculating a complex math problem. Reading at an elevated comfort level opens new neural pathways which, with time, can make reading the classics an easier endeavor.
- Voluminous Vocabulary. No offense to the New-Word-a-Day crowd, but nothing increases your vocabulary more efficiently than encountering new words in the context of narrative fiction. Some people, even voracious readers of contemporary fiction, might be stumped if confronted with words like prevarication, profligacy, jocose, or throstle. But, when reading one of them in context in the classic novel Silas Marner by George Eliot, the meaning is made clear: “. . . he had entangled himself still further in prevarication and deceit.” To be fair, some words, like throstle, have become obsolete in our changing world, so knowing that the little lad Aaron can sing like a throstle doesn’t do much in the way of understanding. But the others, employed judiciously, are just waiting to be tossed around at the dinner table or spelled out in a crossword puzzle.
- Time Travel. As a writer of historical fiction, I spend a lot of time reading books written by people who have done all the research for me. I find my facts, my dates, my technology, my fashions—all the bits and pieces I need to build my story world. Nothing, however, can capture the heart and soul of a time gone by like reading a novel written during that bygone time. So, when I really wanted to capture the voice of the 1920s for my Roaring Twenties series, I read just about everything written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. He wasn’t just writing about the Roaring Twenties; he was living in the Roaring Twenties. Novels of social conscience like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain employ exquisite writing to confront difficult issues. Novels like those are reminders that, in matters of the heart and mind, we are always living in a moment of history.
- Ghostly Kindred Spirits. It’s one thing to take out your well-worn copy of Jane Eyre and turn the soft pages, skipping to the passages that are underlined and notated. It’s still another to imagine the person who purchased a copy of that book 170 years ago and read it for the first time with the same joy I feel when the new Kate Morton novel I preordered months ago magically appears on my Kindle at midnight. That person, squinting in the lamplight, got to experience the shocking appearance of Bertha without anticipating the shocking appearance of Bertha because there’s no cacophony of reviews and comments saying, “Ooooh! Just wait until you get to the shocking appearance of Bertha!” Reading a classic is like belonging to a centuries-old book club, sharing the experience with souls long gone. (Or with souls you meet up with at La Madeleine every third Tuesday.)
- Accessible Art. Want to see the Mona Lisa? Not a print, or a replication, or an image on your screen, but the painting in the way the artist intended? Start saving your francs for a trip to France. Want to read A Tale of Two Cities, as a book, the way the author intended? You probably have enough change in your car to pick up a copy at a used bookstore. Or download it for a dollar onto your e-reader. Just ask around. Somebody’s kid bought a copy for their sophomore English class and never cracked it open after chapter 2. Literature is art that anybody can own. Or borrow. Twenty-first-century authors with their laptops at Starbucks want the exact same thing as those authors with ink-stained fingers hunched over their reams of parchment. “I hope somebody will read this,” they say. “Share it, talk about it. Read the next.”
About the Story:
It is the best of times . . .
On a tranquil farm nestled in the French countryside, two orphaned cousins—Renée and Laurette—have been raised under the caring guardianship of young Émile Gagnon, the last of a once-prosperous family. No longer starving girls, Laurette and Renée now spend days tending Gagnon’s sheep, and nights in their cozy loft, whispering secrets and dreams in this time of waning innocence and peace.
It is the worst of times . . .
Paris groans with a restlessness that can no longer be contained within its city streets. Hunger and hatred fuel her people. Violence seeps into the ornate halls of Versailles. Even Gagnon’s table in the quiet village of Mouton Blanc bears witness to the rumbles of rebellion, where Marcel Moreau embodies its voice and heart.
It is the story that has never been told.
In one night, the best and worst of fate collide. A chance encounter with a fashionable woman will bring Renée’s sewing skills to light and secure a place in the court of Queen Marie Antoinette. An act of reckless passion will throw Laurette into the arms of the increasingly militant Marcel. And Gagnon, steadfast in his faith in God and country, can only watch as those he loves march straight into the heart of the revolution.
About the Author:
Allison Pittman, author of more than a dozen critically acclaimed novels, is a three-time Christy finalist—twice for her Sister Wife series and once for All for a Story from her take on the Roaring Twenties. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, blissfully sharing an empty nest with her husband, Mike.