Kevin Smokler gave himself a tough assignment when he set out to write Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, and not just because he had to compose the equivalent of fifty book reports in less than ten months. Many adults remember their first experiences with books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Scarlet Letter in much the same way they remember being fitted with braces—as painful but supposedly corrective procedures forced upon them for their own good. And yet, in the short and beguilingly engaging essays that make up Practical Classics, Smokler shows how these works can be relevant and even useful to grownups. Most impressively, he manages to pull this off without sounding stuffy or self-important.
The writer and public speaker obviously had a lot of fun reading and thinking about these books again, and it’s hard not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for the project. He quotes from Spider-Man 2 to explicate Emily Dickinson. He openly admits that he still can’t stand The Scarlet Letter and that he included one book, A Separate Peace, because his mom made him do it. But he also displays a surprising depth of feeling in his responses, and a strong faith in the future of books even in the age of the 140-character limit.
I met up with Smokler at Philz Coffee in the Castro District of San Francisco, the same café where he wrote Practical Classics over cups of coffee made “Kevin-style” (iced, with plenty of almond milk).
The Rumpus: Just before I picked up Practical Classics, I re-read The Great Gatsby for the first time in a long time and I was struck by how much I had missed in that book the first time around. It reminded me of a kid watching a Simpsons episode and having all the best jokes go over his head.
Kevin Smokler: That’s a good comparison. I didn’t remember much of Gatsby from when I read it as a teenager. Mostly what I took from it was the Gatsby of our popular imagination, which is fancy parties and beautifully dressed people and raised martini glasses and the sort of romantic bullshit about a love that cannot be.
What I missed was that the book is told in flashback, which means that the age that Gatsby gives a name to, the Jazz Age, is done. And I think the reason the book’s ending is so murderously beautiful and hard to read at the same time, is because it’s about what we can’t get back. The whole book is about what we can’t get back and what’s already gone—a notion you simply don’t have as a teenager, not really.
Rumpus: You cite two primary influences that inspired you to write the book: Clifton Fadiman, who wrote The Lifetime Reading Plan, and Harold Bloom. I suspect connecting the word “practical” with great works of literature might cause Professor Bloom to break out in hives.
I’m much more of a Fadiman acolyte than a Bloom acolyte. I find Harold Bloom’s dedication to literature really inspiring, and I often use him as a sort of baseline guide of what I should familiarize myself with. But to his mind, reading and appreciating literature is kind of a sour, humorless cross to bear, and I just think that’s silly. I think it’s the very last thing books need in this culture, really.
When I started public speaking, I used to get all the time, “How do we get books to be taken more seriously?” And I said, “No, no, no, we need books to be taken far less seriously!” Literature does not need any more seriousness. What literature needs is chocolate and not broccoli.
Rumpus: And yet, at various points in the book, you warn against reading or consuming any media as escapism. It seems like you’re trying to walk between two poles: Bloom and Fadiman—reading for a kind of empty pleasure and reading for a similarly empty kind of erudition. You seem to think we can have that cake and eat it, too. We can have fun and learn at the same time.
Smokler: I think you’re absolutely right. I see books and music and film and the arts as a bacchanalian feast, or as a symphony with lots of different tones and notes and different kinds of experiences. The opportunity to be different kinds of people in their presence. To me, that is really enjoying the richness of what they offer.
If we’re too serious, we see the arts as something to be slogged through and dealt with and not any fun. And if they’re only there for our enjoyment, then we don’t see how we can grow and change and be better because of them—they’re only there to comfort us and make us feel better. That’s one kind of relationship, but it’s a very shallow relationship. I wish to be challenged by my friends and my wife and my life experiences, just as I would with the fifty new friends I made doing this book, with Margaret Atwood and Dorothy Allison and Carson McCullers and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Rumpus: You recommend what you call the “doggy-paddle versus cannonball” approach to great writers.
Smokler: Yes. I’m much more of a doggy-paddle kind of reader, which means you find the easiest road into an author’s work. If you want to go off-roading and go over some potholes and stuff like that—down some gorges—help yourself. But if you start with the gorges, that’s the very first association you have with that author, and it’s probably not the most accurate one, because I think any author who’s built up a body of work has accessible books and less accessible books, all different gradients.
Rumpus: You definitely took this approach with David Foster Wallace by including the shorter nonfiction piece A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, instead of, say, Infinite Jest.
Smokler: I was pretty convinced that David Foster Wallace was only writing for his own amusement when I first read him, and if I didn’t get it, there was something wrong with me. There was something very condescending and high-handed about it. And I was completely wrong. I was one hundred percent wrong. I’m not saying I’m going to run out tomorrow and buy Infinite Jest, but I feel much more comfortable forming a relationship as a reader with his work now.
Rumpus: Speaking of finding the most accessible way into an author’s work, you openly advise people to buy the Cliff’s Notes to Shakespeare, which I think would give Harold Bloom a full-blown aneurysm.
Smokler: I’m sure it would, if it hasn’t already. As a consumer of culture, I am more interested in how rather than what. I’m more interested in how we find out Rosebud is the sled, than the fact that Rosebud is the sled. That doesn’t mean I feel at liberty to go around ruining the experience for everybody else, but I don’t think I’m going to get anything less out of Shakespeare’s work if I happen to know that the main character in The Tempest is named Prospero before I start reading it.
Rumpus: This gets back to the notion of practicality. The takeaway from your essay on Shakespeare is that people should derive joy from his work. What’s practical about that?
Smokler: In that essay, I don’t say anything like, “Oh, Shakespeare’s going to make you better at your job or a better parent or a better friend,” or anything like that, because I don’t believe that, as of yet. I’m a relative newbie to Shakespeare. But I think that one of the lessons I’ve taken away from getting older—I’m going to be forty in August—is that there are things that everybody is supposed to appreciate and admire that I just won’t understand, and that’s okay. That’s what the Scarlet Letter piece is about.
Smokler: I didn’t, I didn’t, and I’m not going to. To no fault of Mr. Hawthorne’s—there’s plenty of his stuff that I have liked in the past. But I’m just not going to get on board with The Scarlet Letter. I was three-quarters of the way into that book when I’m like, “No! It’s just not going to work!” I wasn’t content to just throw away my effort on that, so I said, “Is there something I can wrestle out of this?” And what I wrestled out of it was that The Scarlet Letter is kind of a stand-in for difficult reading. Books aren’t all supposed to be our best friends. Sometimes they’re supposed to be that difficult friend who encourages us to do things that we don’t feel are rational or grown-up.
Rumpus: In a lot of ways, you’re giving the reader of Practical Classics permission to see these books as living works, as perfectly okay to criticize. They’re not put on some kind of altar, and yet they also shouldn’t just be swept away as some remnant of a past you don’t want to revisit, like high school.
Smokler: That’s absolutely right. If I’ve accomplished anything in this book, what I really want to have happen—and it may happen to one reader, maybe none—is for someone to read my take on one of these books and say, “Shoot! I never thought about Fahrenheit 451 in that way. Maybe Guy Montag’s crappy job, which is making him miserable, sounds a little bit like my crappy job that is making me miserable. Maybe Fahrenheit 451 isn’t just a good story but a useful story, and contained in it and the story of how it came into being is the idea of how work need not eat away at our soul.”
Rumpus: We’re back to the practicality thing again. The essay that impressed me the most in that regard was the one on To Kill A Mockingbird.
Smokler: My memory of that book was that the trial, the case of Tom Robinson, began around page ten. It was that fundamental to the narrative. In fact, it begins around page ninety-five. The beginning of the book is about family life, which, to me, says it’s as much a book about growing up and parents and children and siblings and family as it is about race relations. It is, of course, about race relations, too, but we get a lot more about Atticus Finch as a widowed father than we do about Atticus Finch as a crusading civil rights attorney.
Rumpus: And that’s not how most people remember it.
Smokler: No. This is terrible for me to say, but being a good father is valued a lot less than being a crusading civil rights attorney.
Smokler: Yeah. I think it makes a great Father’s Day gift. Harper Lee made the biggest decision of her life to move to New York to try and put this book together far away from home, working a job she didn’t like in the dead cold of the winter of ’58 or ’59, whenever it was. Somewhere in her mind, she remembered the person who had believed in her the most, which was her dad, who gave her a typewriter when she was nine years old and expressed an interest in writing stories, something I don’t think you did with young girls in Monroeville, Alabama in the ’20s and ’30s. He was clearly a remarkable guy. Harper Lee’s older sister became one of the first practicing female attorneys in Monroeville and practiced law for seventy years or something crazy like that.
Rumpus: One of the things I liked about reading all fifty essays straight through, rather than a little bit here or there, is how much I learned about you that way. There aren’t a lot of first-person sentences in the book, but by the end of it, I felt like I had come to know you quite well through your reactions to literature. At one point, you state flatly, “I’m not a novelist.” And yet, in writing about novels, you show an incredible amount of sensitivity about character and setting and narrative. So I have to ask, why not? Why aren’t you a novelist?
Smokler: I love novels but I have nothing to invent. I have plenty to say and things I want to explore that aren’t me, but I don’t hear other voices, I don’t inhabit characters, I don’t do any of that. I only write as myself. To me, writing is not some Dance of the Seven Veils, where I’m trying to conceal who I am and what I’m saying. I’m a really, really bad liar. So everything I write sounds like me, contains some part of me. I’m just really Midwestern and wholesome and earnest in that way.
Rumpus: Do you share some of the anxiety that’s out there about the future of the novel? Do you think fiction or the novel as an art form is in trouble?
Smokler: No. The novel, frankly, has never been in trouble, ever. When we say that, we’re really talking about two things. We’re really talking about, “Is the business of the novel in trouble?” I can’t speak to that, I don’t know anything about the economics of publishing, or not much anyway. The other meaning of “Is fiction in trouble?” is “Are people like us who like fiction in trouble?” Is the world suddenly going to be inhabited by people we don’t recognize, don’t like, who don’t speak our language. I’m not saying you are, but to ask that is a fundamentally chauvinist notion. “Is something changing that I don’t like? Is the world not like me? Does it not represent my concerns?” That’s always at the base of that question, be it about fiction, be it, “Is the documentary film in trouble?” or “Is good writing in trouble?” There’s always an overblown romantic notion about how things used to be.
The great thing about the cruel brutality of business is it always kind of works itself out. If there is a problem with the way an industry works, eventually time and the crude forces of capitalism will roll past that roadblock and move us on to the next thing, whatever that may be.
Rumpus: To cite another book you write about in Practical Classics, that seems a tad Panglossian to me.
Smokler: It could be. I think that’s fair. I’m not saying we’re going to like the result on the other end. The delivery mechanisms are certainly changing, distribution is certainly changing, but the desire for story and fiction is as great as it’s ever been.
Rumpus: Okay. Let me try a different way of phrasing what I’m interested in here by getting back to Clifton Fadiman. Back in Fadiman’s heyday in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, literary types were terrified that television and radio were going to kill books. Fadiman very cleverly used those very mediums to promote books. You seem to have a similar project. You have 70,000 Twitter followers. You’re totally comfortable in the new digital reality. And yet, you’re urging people to read books, these kind of ancient, weird things. “Black squiggles on white paper,” as Fadiman called them. You don’t seem to see the Internet as a threat to books in general or the novel specifically.
Smokler: No. John Stuart Mill was convinced that the end of novels was going to be newspapers. Why in the world would you engage with a 300-page book when someone will drop the fifteen-page version of everything important that’s happening in the world on your doorstep in the morning and you can finish it before breakfast?
The same thing was said about the automobile, if you can believe that. Why would anybody ever sit still and read the classics? You can’t read and drive! I cannot believe the level of pessimism we have about life’s wondrous possibilities as readers. It must make us the worst kind of company. Who wants to hear that?
Reading is a wild act of daring and risk. Reading a book, imagining the world different than how it is where you’re currently standing, is a great psychological, social risk. It should make us more daring. It should make us eager to see what the world has to offer us. It should not have us building some sort of hermit-crab shell around ourselves, afraid that something’s going to take away our precious books from us. I don’t know where we get this idea from, but it’s not only childish, it’s just plain wrong. History has never borne out this fear. The only time history bears out this fear is when fascists start marching and burning things. Otherwise, you can spend the next two hours running off a list of things people were convinced would be the death of books and weren’t. It has never happened.
Rumpus: So you’re confident that in fifty years, somebody could write a book similar to yours, inviting people to revisit books they read in high school?
Smokler: Sure! It’ll be a different list. It’ll probably be delivered in a different format—hell, there might be a chip implanted in your head. I don’t care.
What I love about Clifton Fadiman is that to his mind, there was no distinction between intellectual improvement and enjoying yourself. He didn’t see those two things as different. He saw them, in fact, as one and the same, which I really admire about him. And I do too. But Clifton Fadiman was also very much a man of his time. He had a very midcentury, boom-time America point of view. My era, the time I’m living in, is one with endless access to information at the click of a mouse, which means we can get anything we want as quickly as we want for a reasonable price, and the default setting for the faucet is “on.” I’m not saying any of that is bad, but I’m saying we have the option to do differently. In fact, I believe that we should exercise that option. We shouldn’t be overclocked all the time, any more than we should be running all the time or talking all the time or only eating one kind of food or only engaged with one kind of person. To me, that’s a very, very myopic way to go through life.
What I’m arguing in Practical Classics is we actually do have time to slow down if we want to. We’re not going to miss anything. None of these books are going to go away. No one’s ever going to say, “Well, you could’ve reread Death of a Salesman, but now you can’t. Sorry, you missed that boat.” The truth is nothing is going to go away. Going away is almost a condition of a previous era. If I miss the Veronica Mars movie when it comes out, what does that actually mean? If I’m arguing anything, I think it’s that we have more time than we think.
Rumpus: And preserving books, specifically so-called “classics,” is an important way to help people realize that.
Smokler: Yes. If I have a conservative streak, it’s that I don’t think we can look at things that are canonical and just dismiss them out of hand and say, “Ah, dead white guys, who cares?”
Rumpus: Wait! Harold Bloom is appearing! There he is!
Smokler: There is a reason [these books] have persisted, and it’s not because a cabal of English teachers made it so. They have persisted because they have meant something to generations upon generations of humanity. We can decide for ourselves whether or not they mean something to us, and they’re not all going to (see: The Scarlet Letter). But we can’t dismiss them just because everybody likes them or just because everybody thinks they’re important. As clichéd and uninteresting as it is to say, “I love Shakespeare,” given that people have been saying that for 500 years, it’s probably worth poking around and seeing if you actually do or not.
First photograph of Kevin Smokler © 2013 by Julie Michelle.
Second photograph of Kevin Smokler © 2013 by Cariwyl Hebert.