Aaron Jacob Wolfson

Novel Advice: The Timeless Beauty of the Classics

Novel Advice is not the first compilation of letters to an advice columnist, nor is it the first in which the columnist adopts an alternate persona. But it is almost certainly the first book in which all of the letters are written by characters in famous novels and plays, and in which the advice columnist is herself a renowned character from Greek mythology. That’s a neat enough trick to hook someone like me: I enjoy a good advice column, but I rarely seek them out.

The letter-writers hail from across the Western canon and beyond. They include both protagonists and villains, the beloved, the infamous, and the inscrutable. Even when the appeals come from the inhabitants of books I dismissed in high school as hopelessly dated, they’re never boring. Credit author Jay Bushman’s knack for pinpointing and exquisitely rendering so many of the most fascinating and relevant conundrums in literature. What makes these people leap off the page, though, is their unique vulnerability: as Bushman points out in the preface, not only are these advice-seekers all in the throes of various thorny dilemmas, but they are also trapped in a meta-dilemma that they’re not even aware of—the fact that they are characters in a story.

It’s really not fair. Their problems are laid out for all to see, and we readers often have far more insight into these poor wretches and their desperate situations than they do. We can see all the forces arrayed against them. We can sometimes see the invisible strings connecting the characters to the hands of the author, who guides the story’s inhabitants to and fro like puppets around a stage. They have no idea this is going on. They don’t feel that their actions are predetermined, that their fates are already inscribed on the following pages. In their minds, they are not heroes or villains, not tragic figures and not comic relief. They are people with problems. Just like us.

The wisdom-dispensing marvel of Novel Advice is Aunt Antigone—Antigone, from Greek mythology, and Aunt, as a play on the “agony aunt” sobriquet for an advice columnist. She is forthright in her assessments, yet throughout the book, she observes the unspoken rule that she must not tell these characters the full truth of their predicament: they’re not to know anything about their status as literary icons, and they can’t be informed as to what will happen to them as their stories unfold. That would be too much; I couldn’t imagine living under that kind of pressure. Better to believe that the next page of my life is as yet unwritten.

As I read the queries and responses in Novel Advice, I found myself making a list of the books and plays I was feeling the most excited to check out. Some, like Hamlet and Moby-Dick, were no surprise; these are the ones I have plenty of experience pretending to have read when they come up at parties—or I would, if I went to parties where people discussed classic literature. My interest in several old favorites, like Catch-22 and To Kill a Mockingbird, was also rekindled.

I noticed a surprising commonality between the three books at the top of my list—they are all very old. I am used to thinking of literature of a certain age as something I should read, rather than something I want to read. Novel Advice has a way of making the characters and stories from these books feel immediate—the idea that they are “old” just falls away. There’s a reason many people consider them timeless: their authors may have written their words onto the page many years ago, but the characters and stories themselves are universal and powerful, and always has been.

If I want to cultivate the proper mindset in which to read these books, however, and to ensure that I’ll persevere through any difficulties, it’s important to first explore some of the reasons why I haven’t read them yet. I’ve certainly had the opportunities, and I’ve chosen to read other things. Could those choices be purely personal? It’s possible, but I also know I’m far from the only one who has avoided most classic literature; many of us have exited high school and college English classes with a bad taste in our mouths.

There are two widespread yet misleading ideas that unnecessarily turn people off.

The first is the idea that I should be able to read old books in dated language without any help. This is clearly, painfully false, and it fails to hold up to even the crudest scrutiny. Alas, it is very real. It comes from a school-and-grades mentality, school being the first (and only) place that most people encounter the great works of literature.

In school, if we need help to do our assignments, others tend to call that cheating, no matter the nature of the help, and despite the fact that we all need extra help in one way or another. In school, the only point of doing anything is to get a good grade; or for some, the point is to get better grades than their classmates. Sure, English teachers talk about how much of a joy it is to read the great books, but students understand that these sentiments are not to be taken seriously. Cool kids know better. They are meant to be slogged through, and reading guides are useful only in cramming for the test. This holds even among the nerd and geek social circles, which are, to be sure, the only ones I can speak of from experience: I never once heard anyone brag about using a guide like CliffsNotes to understand what was happening in The Odyssey, or any other classic.

Oh, we bragged about using CliffsNotes—specifically, we bragged about our ability to get a very good grade on a book report despite reading only the CliffsNotes. We read the CliffsNotes instead of the book, not in addition to it. I’m sure there were students who did actually read all the books, and who pored through reading guides, and who peppered the teachers with questions outside of class. No student, however, even the most proud, would ever admit this in public—it was considered shameful.

Say what you will about this school-age culture’s appropriateness—and if I don’t stop myself here, I will say a lot more about it—but there is no reason why it should persist into adulthood, where we are not being graded, and where we are reading, at least we tell ourselves, purely for pleasure and for the love of learning. Yet it does persist.

Take Shakespeare. There is a long-running debate over whether performing his plays in updated, contemporary language is enlivening, on the one hand, or gauche, on the other. One problem I have with this debate is that people often frame it as either-or. Either one hears Shakespeare in the original, as the man intended it to be heard, or one will derive nothing whatsoever from the experience, and might as well watch Jersey Shore re-runs instead.

I’ll grant the argument that the original is qualitatively better. Even if that’s true, however, it doesn’t mean that any performance that is not fully faithful holds zero value. Like anything else, it is a tradeoff. Languages evolve. English since Shakespeare’s day has changed enormously; and it continues to evolve, faster and faster, the more interconnected our societies become and the wider literacy and education spread. But it hasn’t “advanced” or “progressed;” nor has it “declined” or “deteriorated.” English wasn’t “better” when Shakespeare lived, nor is it “better” today. It’s just different.

Our straining to read Shakespeare today is not a sign of moral or cranial deficiency. It’s not so different from the experience of a grandparent attempting to make sense of a group text between their grandchildren, and wondering what in the world it means for a meme to be off the chain. (Do the kids still say “off the chain?”)

We don’t lack intelligence, sophistication, determination, or education. We merely lack exposure. And there are two equally valid solutions to a lack of exposure to a type of language: either we expose people to it, training them to understand it, or we adulterate the source. My grandpa happens to be interested in the new modes of communication. But if he wasn’t, I would translate for him, not chastise him.

Why then do many critics chastise anyone who enjoys reading or watching such “translations” of Shakespeare, and culturally eviscerate those who dare to create these adaptations? Despite the vast and lucrative market for this material, the debate over authenticity constantly whirs in the background; it’s difficult to turn off that inner English curmudgeon who insists that we’re doing it wrong.

Most of the time, the point of reading any book or watching any play is the story. The point is to have fun and learn something. For most, laboring to unpack odd syntax and suss out obsolete words impedes the fun, as well as the learning—if what we’d like to learn are the lessons of human nature that Shakespeare has bequeathed us.

If that’s you, then by all means, read an adaptation, or an annotated copy. Those for whom the fun is in playing a bit of detective, and who enjoy learning about Early Modern English construction, remain free to read Hamlet and Macbeth “as they were meant to be read.”

There is also a middle ground. Yes, read Shakespeare’s original. And also, read the Wikipedia page. In fact, read the Wikipedia page first; spoil the ending, if you like. You probably already know what happens to Macbeth anyway. Make [liberal] use of secondary sources and context. Try one of those editions that offers a side-by-side comparison between the original text and an updated version. Look up the etymology and history of the words and phrases that Shakespeare uses in an unfamiliar way.

For whatever book you want to read, you may be able to track down an equivalent to CliffsNotes that is written for adults who’ve adopted this “augmentation” approach, rather than for schoolchildren trying to pass a test. I’m not talking about the tossed-off “summaries” that proliferate on Amazon, and I’m not suggesting that this kind of thing is an acceptance replacement for an unabridged work, unless you’re simply not interested in reading the whole thing, but still want to get the benefits of knowing the story. What I’m advocating is richness and fullness, not abridgment or “shortcuts”: anything that will give you a more profound and meaningful experience.

The second limiting belief with reading classic literature is the idea that society has changed so much that the characters, settings, and problems in these books are no longer relevant to our lives: they are neither interesting nor helpful. Outwardly, that may appear to be the case; just as an obsolete word communicates an aura of irrelevance, so too does a character who, dressed in a doublet, unsheathes their sword and challenges their rival to a duel.

Countering this second belief is something Novel Advice does particularly well. It shows that the aura of irrelevance conveyed by some of the language in these works is an appearance only, a first impression. It is not substantial; it chips away as we dig into the actual human dynamics at play in the story, revealing a radiant, living core.

The main plot of Hamlet concerns a struggle for the throne of medieval Denmark. This surface description feels obscure and un-relatable. However, that’s not what the story is about; it’s about how to respond when something you feel you’ve earned by rights is denied you. It’s about whether a relationship can work between two lovers from vastly different social strata. And it’s about the nature of existence.

Moby-Dick covers a way of life that is almost totally obsolete. Nobody reading this will have embarked on a three-year voyage aboard a 19th-century whaling vessel. Yet the story remains beloved; people swear by it. Jay Bushman, the author of Novel Advice, appeared on an episode of the podcast Moby Dick Energy—which, you’re right, is the greatest podcast name ever—during which he stated that Moby-Dick “contains everything.” In other words, it’s not just about a giant fish. Although the whale stuff is part of the charm, there are probably plenty of other books from Melville’s time that traffic in similar tropes. What sets Moby-Dick apart is its timeless insight.

That insight is the power that these works exude, across time and space, and in the face of a culture that academizes and fossilizes them. Novel Advice takes the most well-known and compelling characters from these books and strips away their accumulated crust of artifice and cliche, revealing the people beneath in their essence. The characters gripped me through Bushman’s writing the way they never did in school, where they pretty much weren’t given the chance. Here, they are fascinating and ambitious, and, at the same time, vulnerable and afraid and unsure. Human, all too human.

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