Despite my literature degree, there are plenty of classics I’ve never read. Some of them were never assigned. Many weren’t considered important, or they simply weren’t part of the canon. Often I found the same works assigned over and over. I’ve read Hamlet and the Iliad more often than I care to contemplate, while less serious books were never placed on the reading list. Worse still, I was a horrible high school student, so I glossed over Dickens and other books I should have read twenty years ago.
We can add to this problem that there’s a simple truth that education isn’t what it used to be. Nothing makes this plainer than opening my aged copy of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Printed in the 1940s, it’s listed as a book for boys. It’s a problem that’s getting worse, as some curricula have dropped novels altogether.
It cannot be said often enough that reading widens the mind, and that the best means of becoming a better writer is to read. But knowing there’s a gap in my knowledge and filling it are two very different things. Sitting down with a classic book for an evening never makes my list of top priorities, so I’ve taken to audio books to try and make up some ground.
David Cordingly’s many references to Treasure Island put it at the top of my list to see if I can listen to a book and still analyze it. As I listen to the adventures of Jim Hawkins, I’m immediately struck by Stevenson’s approach to his narrative. Treasure Island has many of the traits and techniques of a good, modern young adult novel. First, there’s always action. We spend little time in unnecessary detail and much of it following Jim’s fight for his life. We’re dropped into the sailing vernacular without a glossary or explanation of terms. Stevenson avoids a pedantic approach. He’s not telling us a story to teach us about pirates, but instead lets events take their course at a quick pace. Jim, as a character, grows from cowering at a single pirate to boldly telling a roomful of them how he’s foiled their plots.
One inconsistency in the book is a brief point of view shift about halfway through. Stevenson needed this shift in order to fill us in on plot details Hawkins isn’t present for, but it does break up the overall flow of the narrative in a jarring way.
Listening to a book is a very different experience for me, but I find it does wonders for helping to tune my ear to pace and dialogue. Whenever I think things are slowing down, Stevenson inserts a plot twist, a betrayal or reversal of fortune. Like any book written in another age, the language is different. The pirates patois is coupled with outdated phrasing that makes a reader blink; but in a way this adds to the exotic air of the story as we’re not only looking at another culture but into another time as well.