Once upon a time I was an attorney. Now, retired, I call myself a “recovering” attorney. Before I was an attorney I majored in English literature, a degree that has become an endangered species in our modern, technological world. I loved it at the time: the study of literature—fiction (novels and short stories) especially. I love it still. Thus, “recovering” as I am, I returned to an active study of literature through the class I lead at ELM.
The study of great fiction is an art
The class I lead is titled The Art of Fiction. Each session is new because each tackles a different set of fiction classics. Many of these classics are familiar, but some are “modern” classics—meaning that you may not have studied them in school, or even heard of them, perhaps. But as a rule I only select authors and books that win awards, and I personally vouch for the value and enjoyment of reading whatever is selected.
We are not a book club, as I understand the term. Instead, we are more like a travel club, with me as the tour guide. I listen, learn, lead discussions and teach. My goal is to share what I love about each book we read, without depriving class participants of their own reading experiences. The privilege I enjoy is being able to do so in a company of folk who are congenial and share in an appreciation of what fiction, in particular, is uniquely able to say and do in the minds and hearts of its readers.
Expand your reading list learning with others
Who is this company of folk? All love to read, that’s sure. But for some they sense the need to read better, or more deeply; for others the need is to read better books, the books that they missed along the way, classics, rightly so-called. Still others take the opportunity to read again works they have perhaps read many times, knowing that another reading will yield the different and deeper understanding that great art, and longer life, almost always produce. And then there are those for whom it is the conversation with others, the rich perspective that one gets from other readers who wrestle with, and love, great literature.
Explore classic and modern great works of fiction
Together we have engaged with great authors both foreign and domestic, Leo Tolstoy and Faulkner, Joseph Conrad and Hemingway, Graham Greene and Stephen Crane. We have engaged authors of our own times—Salman Rushdie, Marilynne Robinson, Gunter Grass, John Updike, Ian McEwan, Elizabeth Strout, Margaret Atwood— and authors of our own region, the South—Flannery O’Connor of Georgia, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, Robert Penn Warren, all of whom have written modern classics. We have passed time with interesting characters: Huck Finn and Jim on the raft floating down the Mississippi River, Jay Gatsby and his grand dream, the Joad family on their journey from Oklahoma to the Promised Land of California. I am richer for these fresh engagements with author and character and so, I believe, are those who have been with me.
What you will gain from this reading
Recently I read an article about the value of reading great novels. I would have said, if I had written the article, “because they are enjoyable” and “because they make you think”. The author of the article, however, was hunting bigger game. He concluded, based on whatever studies he had at hand, that people who read novels, especially serious-minded or classical novels, were better at understanding and dealing with other people than those who did not. I believe it. I also believe that the pleasure gained from such reading—as well as the knowledge and understanding he referred to—doubles or triples when undertaken in a congenial group of fellow readers. At least that has been my experience with ELM’s Art of Fiction. And in case you are wondering, there’s always room on the boat for new travelers.
Jeff Plowman for The Art of Fiction