Cervantes wrote a book called Don Quixote. I tried reading it once (in translation), but I couldn’t get far into it. Yet I know all about who Don Quixote was. A man who tilted at windmills. He thought they were giants, but fought the windmills. He had dreams and delusions that he was someone outstanding, and somehow in the process, he was. Or something like that. Maybe I’m wrong — but I seem to think I know all about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Melville wrote Moby-Dick. I never read it. But I know I’m supposed to call him Ishmael. And I know that the white whale is (or has become) a metaphor for anything we fight against our whole lives, and never defeat.
Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged. I never read it. But I know that she’s a complete nutjob who wanted her world to burn, and thanks to the Tea Party and others, it just might.
And Joseph Heller wrote a book called Catch-22. Again, I’ve never read it. (First off, maybe this is all a sign I need to read more.) But again, I know the point, or at least I think I do. All these books are classics in one way or another, and they’ve all entered our cultural vocabulary. You can’t grow up in the world without knowing references like “white whale” and “catch-22.”
You know, I was going to write about the concept of a “catch-22” today. About circumstances we find ourselves in where the conditions for success are completely impossible. Things like, “I can’t find a job because everyone is looking for experience, yet I can’t get any experience because I can’t find a job.” The prologue I wrote above was just supposed to be a way into the book, and thus the concept, of catch-22. But now that I’ve written that prologue, I’m more interested in what other cultural knowledge we have that comes from books we’ve never read.
There’s The Iliad and The Odyssey. I’ve read The Odyssey, but never The Iliad. Yet I know all about Agamemnon and Paris, about Achilles and his heel.
I have read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I didn’t have to in order to know that Gray has a picture of himself that ages, while he stays perpetually young. Archetypal deal with the devil. I guess that’s what these classics have done for our culture — given us archetypes, a type of “uber-metaphor” that give our lives structure, give us ways to describe and define.
Jane Eyre gave us “the woman in the attic.” A Tale of Two Cities gave us “a far better thing I do today than I have ever done before.” 1984 gave us “Big Brother is watching.” The Lord of the Flies gave us itself (“God, it’s like Lord of the Flies in here!”). Oedipus the King gave us a complex.
All these books, and many more, have entered our language, our lexicon, our culture, our “race memory.” I don’t think I’m alone in knowing at least a little about eachh of them, whether I’ve read them or not. In fact, I’ve found sometimes (though certainly not always) that finally reading a “classic” like this is disappointing, because I felt like my own intuitive knowledge of the “point” was more vivid and more powerful than the subtle way it’s presented in the book. Reminds me of the time in college when a bunch of us rented the movie Soylent Green. We knew nothing about it except the twist, that the special food that everyone was fed, called “soylent green,” was made out of human flesh. We also knew that at some point, the main character screams to the camera: “Soylent green is PEOPLE!! It’s made out of PEOPLE!!!!” Then we watched it, and we were incredibly disappointed. Charlton Heston doesn’t scream in the campy way we expected, so much as mutter it quietly. Maybe we were just adolescents looking for cheap thrills, and we missed subtle genius. I don’t know.
But either way, we all know what a catch-22 is, even if we’ve never read the book, don’t we?
Leave a comment if you can think of other books that fit into this category. Thanks!