Incorporating the Classics

What would the Vicar of Wakefield do?

Biking While Reading

This week I started biking to my office a few times per week. I’ve done the round trip journey twice now, and I already have a new perspective that comes from moving at a slower pace, being out in the fresh air, and nearly getting mowed down by a rude driver.

It happened as I was trying to cross one the major roads in my city. I patiently waited at the light and, when it turned green, I moved across in a safe, careful manner. That is, until I had to veer out the way of a driver who decided red lights didn’t apply to him. I shouted out a surprised “Be careful,” which prompted the driver to stop and call out things I can’t print here since my mom reads these articles.

Later, when the desire to commit various vengeful felonies had passed, I found myself wondering how the Vicar of Wakefield would have handled this setback. I was starting to worry that spending a year with these great works was having no impact on me when suddenly one jumps into one of my life-and-death activities.

In Oliver Goldsmith’s book, the vicar is a lighthearted, water-off-a-duck’s-back fellow. He loses his riches, his possessions, his children one by one, his house, and even his freedom, but he never strays far from his Job-like patience. Certainly, something as minor as getting run over by a 2,000-pound motorized vehicle would have left him calm and placid. And now that I’ve read the book, I have to ask how I can incorporate the vicar’s outlook on life into my own.

But then there are other, competing examples from the project’s books. Oedipus would have murdered the man on the spot. Karl Marx would have blamed the man’s obvious bourgeois upbringing. Captain Ahab would have chased the man to the ends of the earth. And Gregor Samsa would have turned into a bug and died. Which of these should I use as my example?

This is something that keeps bothering me about the classics. Certainly they are meant to impact me. But in several cases, the stories and details are so specific that they could never apply to my own life. I was not raised as a discarded orphan, nor did such an orphan ruin my life. So what am I to do with the example of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights? I’m not an international spy, so how can I apply the events of Alec Leamas’s life into my own? I understand that these books are examinations of the general human condition, and that specifics don’t always apply. But sometimes the overall themes don’t seem to apply, either.

There are no easy answers when it comes to dealing with the books in the Well-Read Man project. It will take a lot of thought and consideration, to the point of distraction. Perhaps that’s what bozo was thinking about when he careened past me. One can only hope.

[Image Credits: Bill Summer]


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