One reads the classics because…
Actually, I won’t presume to know why anyone else reads a classic novel.*
Having long since passed the stage of life wherein, to quote the Indigo Girls song “Closer to Fine:”
…I went to see the doctor of philosophy
With a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
He never did marry or see a B-grade movie
He graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
Got my paper and I was free
Very much in spite of much of the bureaucratic process we call schooling, but with deep regard for the great investment of time and energy—of inestimable value!—into the bettering of my mind by more than my fair share of gifted teachers, I remain a student, if not a scholar, and a committed autodidact.
For this reason—and because I suffer from an oscillation between stultifying malaise and desperate, yearning agitation when I don’t have a good book at hand, preferably with a few more queued up—I read and re-read the classics.
Last month, I embarked upon the reading of W. Somerset Maugham‘s hefty tome, Of Human Bondage.
The wholly inadequate summary of the novel in the library catalogue says:
“The story of a deformed youth whose handicap causes loneliness.”
I would laugh if such a shallow skimming over of the depth of this story didn’t leave me wanting to sob. It’s almost a caricature of the isolation and lack of understanding that torments Phillip, Of Human Bondage‘s orphaned protagonist, during his youth.
With little interest in literary criticism, let me come directly to what moved me so deeply as I worked my way—slowly, because it deserved thorough attention—through this weighty novel:
Phillip needed a caregiver.
He really could have used a mother. He flailed because being orphaned left him to learn for himself what most of us are taught by even mediocre parents.
He was born with a less than stellar internal compass for interpreting the giving and receiving of any kind of love. He wasn’t what we might call today a “people person.” He was one of those kids who most need explicit help to interpret the social world, and take a full role within it.
Reading Of Human Bondage made the importance of the part I can play in my sons’ lives more unequivocal to me than ever before. I should be mature enough not to doubt it; I remain insecure enough that I do.
I’m grateful that I didn’t read Maugham’s masterpiece as a student.