This summer, I will be immersed — drowned, may be a better word — in reading. I am completing three literature survey courses and returning to many neglected and forgotten texts.
It’s easy to think that the most exciting writing is the newest writing. I’ve been guilty — many times — of looking at old stories as stale stories. I want fresh. I want “raw.” I want a movie or story that can break into full-blown violence, profanity, nudity — all the yucky stuff — at any time. Not because I lust for exploitation — the promise that yucky stuff will happen (that would be too predictable) — but because I want to enter a story knowing that anything can happen.
Writing and film in the last forty years offers that rawness, the possibility of the unpredictable. In a PG or (my least favorite rating) PG-13, I know that there will be limits, many of them artificial just to secure a rating. The content will be framed or recast in a way that implies safety, predictability. Of course this isn’t always true. A PG film isn’t necessarily more limited than an R film (and many R films are boring because of their “R-ness”). But, it’s the assumption.
That’s the assumption I follow when approaching older texts. I expect them to be limited, much like a 1950s American film that must end with the bad guy and the adulterous woman getting punished. But, to my pleasant surprise, old texts don’t work that way.
I found myself laughing and groaning several times while coursing through these old works. In Samuel Pepys’s Diary (1660s), Pepys writes about his adultery and needing to “piss” during the coronation of King Charles II. In Mary Rowlandson’s Captivity Account (1682), the poor woman recounts being attacked and captured by Native Americans. Her story is terrifying, maddening, and profound.
I look forward to new batch of stories, poems, and essays in the coming weeks. How did I live so long without reading Robinson Crusoe? Some pieces, like any period of literature, are predictable and tame. But there are many that remind me that good and great writers have come and gone than currently compete for space at Barnes & Noble’s.