Rereading The Classics: Lessons Learned The Second Time Around Writer Kevin Smokler spent most of 2012 rereading the books assigned in his high school English classes. Smokler, 39, speaks with NPR's Neal Conan about what he learned after returning to the classics.
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Rereading The Classics: Lessons Learned The Second Time Around

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Rereading The Classics: Lessons Learned The Second Time Around

Rereading The Classics: Lessons Learned The Second Time Around

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Back in high school, we started to read grown-up books whether we wanted to or not. English teachers assigned us to explore the lives of Holden Caufield, Huckleberry Finn and Jay Gatsby. We rode along with the Jodes to California, discovered the poetry of Homer and Dickenson, and most of us stashed the paperbacks into cardboard box somewhere after we graduated, never to be opened again.

Last year, writer Kevin Smokler called up his old English teachers and spent 10 months revisiting the books they'd assigned to him back in high school. If you've gone back to reread something from your high school book list, what did you learn the second time? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now from KQED, our member station in San Francisco, is Kevin Smokler. His upcoming book is called "Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Re-Read 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School." It goes on sale next month, and thanks for joining us with a preview.

KEVIN SMOKLER: Oh, thank you for having me, Neal. It's a great pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And I know you spent a long time finalizing your reading list. You wanted to include not just books you were assigned, but maybe some more modern efforts.

SMOKLER: Absolutely. I didn't want this book to be some sort of frozen in an amber time capsule of, you know, the late George Bush, Sr. years when I was in high school. I graduated in 1991.

CONAN: I graduated a few years earlier than you - I'm not going to say exactly how many - but our reading lists were considerably different. I did see "Adam Bede" on you reading list.

SMOKLER: Oh, you know, Neal, I think the three upcoming sequels to "Practical Classics" - imaginary as they may be at this point - will be all of the people who have said to me, did you include X or did you include Y? I - one of the joys and frustrations of doing this was how many books I wanted to include, but couldn't.

CONAN: And you absolutely found 50 that were worthy of re-reading?

SMOKLER: Oh, I found hundreds that were worthy or re-reading. Getting down to 50 was the real challenge.

CONAN: And of the ones - you describe by yourself as spending formative weeks in high school wearing a trench coat and a hat with earflaps after reading about Holden Caufield.

SMOKLER: Formative is putting it nicely. I would say probably idiotic or pretentious at looking back at my 15-year-old self then. But yes, I had it in my head that wearing a red hat with earflaps made sure that it was a symbol and an understanding that Holden Caufield "got me." I'm doing air quotes right now, around the words "got me."

CONAN: Mm-hmm. And you had read the book many times in high school, but on re-reading discovers some things you had neglected to notice those first 50 times or so.

SMOKLER: Something huge, actually, Neal. I - if you had asked me a year ago how many siblings Holden Caufield had, I would've said two: his older brother D.B., the screenwriter, and of course, as we all know, the younger sister, Phoebe. What I didn't realize is Holden Caufield had a third sibling named Allie who has died when the book has begun. And in an absolutely key scene - one scene before he meets Phoebe outside the Museum of Natural History - he is wandering Park Avenue, feeling, I believe the quote is "so lonesome and sad," and muttering to himself every block: Please, Allie, don't let me disappear. Please, Allie, don't let me disappear.

And I remember just putting the book down, when I read that. And I said, God, I really thought that Holden Caufield was just a bratty teenager, and I didn't have any reason to look at this book after I was no longer a bratty teenager. And when I read that, I said, my God. This is really, in a large way, a book about sadness and grief and finding oneself after a terrible loss.

CONAN: And the essays you must've written, did you get A's on them?



SMOKLER: I think I might've gotten a few A's, because I understood what an English teacher was looking for. But if you're asking if that A was any reflection of my understanding of the book, the answer would be no. If it was being graded upon that, I don't think I would have left high school.

CONAN: So you have, I guess, compiled this list of 50 books. And how long did it take you to go through, and how many did you read to get to 50?

SMOKLER: So I read about between like 56 and 60 to whittle it down to 50. I probably had a half a dozen false starts, where I decided a book didn't fit in the overall narrative, or I really wanted to do an - a different book by that same author but I had chosen the wrong one. Getting the list together at the beginning was the first challenge, and that probably - I had a 10-month period to write the book. The first six weeks was probably spent on whittling the list down.

CONAN: And what was the most painful one to exclude?

SMOKLER: Oh, that's a good question. I desperately wanted to go back to James Baldwin's "Go Tell it on the Mountain." And I had mistakenly thought that the James Baldwin book I should have been reading for this project was "Giovanni's Room," and I read that. And as much as I loved "Giovanni's Room," the place where I wanted James Baldwin to go in this book was in the coming-of-age section. And "Go Tell It on the Mountain" is much more of a coming-of-age book. And by the time I realized that, it was too late in the process and I couldn't go back to it. I'm still a little heartbroken about that.

CONAN: There's another book you've included, and you've highlighted the ones that you actually read when you were in high school, among them "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," and - very influential book, a pretty good book. As we've learned from recent biography, not a terribly accurate book.

SMOKLER: No, no. A point I do make in the essay, the autobiography is definitely a very - by Malcolm X was definitely a very calculated grab at a sense of immortality. Malcolm X admits at the end of the book that he does not see himself living past this publication, which, in fact, he did not do. And the book - and also the Spike Lee movie, which I worshiped when it came out my freshman year in college, does have a certain amount of mythologizing and overlooked some of the thornier points of Malcolm X's life that the Manning Marable biography raised, points I do make in the essay, that Malcolm X was in fact only 39 years old when he died and was probably not - probably was not as fully formed as a human being as he would have like to have been, a confession he also makes in the conclusion of the autobiography.

CONAN: We're talking about the books we read in high school and - that might be worth going back for a new visit. If you've gone back to re-examine something that you read back in your teenage years, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: Let's start with Wendy. Wendy is on the line with us from Tucson.

WENDY: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SMOKLER: Hi, Wendy.

WENDY: Hello. The book that I read that I really like, again at 28, was (unintelligible) "Gatsby," actually. I read it in high school, and I thought it was so boring. And I remember that all of my friends also thought it was boring. None of us seem to really get it. And the reason I re-read it was that I actually saw a play of the book, and it was so incredible and the characters were so rich.

It's so well-developed. That when I went back and re-read I realized that they had been there all along, that Gatsby is just this incredibly tragic, you know, stuck figure who's just - who's so, you know, held up by his love for this - for Daisy that it ruins his whole life. Anyway, I thought it was incredible upon re-read.

SMOKLER: Absolutely.

CONAN: It turns out that Fitzgerald guy could turn a phrase or two.

SMOKLER: A couple, yeah.

WENDY: Yeah, that's true.


CONAN: It's interesting. Kristen Thornburg tweeted us to say: I re-read "Gatsby" every year. In high school, I was all about tragic love story - as an adult, the failure of the American dream.

SMOKLER: Yeah. I do make - there's a - the concluding essay of this book is on "Gatsby." And I remember reading it. I actually read it in college, and I remember loving the costumes and the booze and the parties and the Jazz Age. And I remember completely missing what is brought home so beautifully in the last section, where - and there we are, boats against the current born ceaselessly into the past - where you realize that "Gatsby" is very much a book about acceptance of loss and things we cannot get back and what Robert Penn Warren called the awful responsibility of time.

And it's just something that I, of course, had no understanding of at age 14, when many of my peers were reading that book, and barely grasped at 20 when I read it in college. And now that I'm older and a little creakier and sorer in the knees, the passage of time means a lot more to me and is all the more vivid.

CONAN: Wendy, thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

WENDY: Thank you.

SMOKLER: Thank you, Wendy.

CONAN: Among the books, you also include "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville. I was going to read it, but I did not care to.


SMOKLER: Oh, yeah. I feel remiss that I didn't make that joke myself.


SMOKLER: But yeah, "Bartleby," I think, is often called one of the great stories about workplace dynamics. And...

CONAN: It is. It's very close to our previous conversation.

SMOKLER: Yes. The thing I remember that came home to me screaming when I read that book is I think all of us have a Bartleby at our workplace, the person who when you pass a project or a set of instructions or purchase order onto, who delivers 71 percent of it with no explanation for where the other 29 is and if you try and get an explanation you get some version of I would prefer not to.

And I think what that story reminds us of so vividly is how intimate, how much in intimate contact we are with the people we work with every day and how little we may actually know them. I think the essay for that, what I called "Bartleby in the Break Room," because I'm guessing you all have a Bartleby-like person at your own workplace.

CONAN: Never. Not here.

It was also a crucial story for me. I heard it actually read by James Mason on one of those great recordings - KM(ph) Records, I think - and it provided me an insight into Melville, who in my youth - I, of course, the great literary critic, had decided wasn't worth anybody's time, and that reading got me into reading the book and reading that story and then reading a couple of other - Melville's book, which turned out to be pretty good.

SMOKLER: Absolutely. I think what I remember when I read that story, I thought it was just about a guy who is kind of a pain in the neck in the office. And I didn't understand why anybody would spend 23 pages on that. And I'm sure, pumped through James Mason's voice, that it illuminated the mystery and foreboding at the edges of that story, made all the more so by the fact that the narrator is never named. We don't know who this person is, who's had this mysterious encounter with this mysterious man. And the whole thing is kind of shrouded in dark curtains, and even though it's as common - even though it's as commonplace as a day at the office.

CONAN: Henry...

SMOKLER: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Kevin Smokler's upcoming book is called "Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

David's on the line, calling from San Francisco.


SMOKLER: Hello, David.

DAVID: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DAVID: Yeah, for me it's definitely "Moby-Dick," speaking of Melville, just an unbelievably tedious book in high school. Yet on...

CONAN: More about flensing than you ever wanted to know.


DAVID: Absolutely.


DAVID: Flensing and scrimshaw and any number of New England arcana. But especially now when we're looking at hyperlinked literature with different eddies and flows about supporting topics and areas for further exploration, you know, Melville to me and "Moby-Dick" to me is just such an extraordinarily - extraordinary modern novel. It has so many of these, you know, supporting points and contexts that add such richness and color to the work. And then it's absolutely archetypal in the way that it delves into those representations of America at the beginning of the ascent(ph) to world power, to the nature of power, the nature of obsession, the nature of passion, the nature of hunting, you know, and what that means within the context of whaling and the brutality that exists within the industry.

Ahab as a tragic figure, you know, is really only second to Shakespeare. And race relations. One of the more fascinating things is the relationship between Ahab and Pip. So precursors, you know, obviously being influenced by the Civil War and Lincoln. So just so many different levels and just such richness and such incredible insight into the human condition. I just find it absolutely indispensible now.

SMOKLER: So true. I should say, David, as much I enjoyed reading "Bartleby," "Bartleby" was substitute for not being able to dive into something as deep and broad as "Moby-Dick" for this particular book, having only 10 months to do it. I had to avoid larger books like "Moby-Dick" and "Crime and Punishment" and "Middlemarch," must as I would have like to.

CONAN: Yeah, that and "War and Peace," there's your time.

SMOKLER: Yeah. You know, if I ever get to this again, maybe I'll devote - it will be practical classics. The expanded, you know, expanded obese edition, where it will all be books over 800 pages.

CONAN: Or go back to the illustrated classics. I'm sure they got it into 24 pages.



CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David.

DAVID: Bye-bye.

SMOKLER: Thanks, David.

CONAN: Let's see if we go next to Brian. And Brian is on the line from Denver.

BRIAN: Yes. Hello. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

SMOKLER: Nice to talk to you, Brian.

BRIAN: I was going to mention Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter."


BRIAN: Incredible text it was - to go back to that as an older person and just to be able to relate to it more fully, and actually to be able to even get through it. It was a really tough text in high school. And I think I just was managing all the language. And for me as a reader in high school, I felt like I had to comprehend everything. I couldn't continue on in a passage. And as an older person I think you learn to just let the story unfold and not need to comprehend every single word. You can start to let the story unfold and let the lyric - lyrical nature of the text come forward too.

But I also just, as a gay person in our culture, I really appreciated reading that because at that time when I was in high school when I read it, I wasn't fully aware of that. And it's fascinating to come back to a text like "The Scarlet Letter" now and to be able to see part of who I am in that story and part of what it means to be an other in our culture.

SMOKLER: Brian, I really wished I had spoken to you when I was deciding to do "The Scarlett Letter." I think I would have been more enthusiastic about it, given what you just said. When I was putting it together, it was by far the most controversial choice to include in this book. I probably had four dozen conversations with people about this project, and they all said you're not going to include "The Scarlett Letter," are you? And that, of course, is the indication that I had to.

I didn't care for it in high school, and I didn't care for it at the second time around. I think mostly for my own hang-ups about what I like to read. And so I included "The Scarlett Letter" because one of the lessons I took from reading this book was not every book is going to show up at your front door holding a chocolate layer cake. Some of them will be more challenging. Some of them will not be as inviting and warm. And that's part - that's one of the joys of being a reader, is that not everything is supposed to comfort you. Some things are supposed to force you to hop on one foot or walk sideways.

And so "The Scarlett Letter" is kind of an avatar for that difficult, challenging and ultimately rewarding reading experience. I'm really glad to hear that it's brought you the joy it has. Maybe I missed something.

CONAN: Brian, thanks very much.

BRIAN: Last thing I'll say is just about the little girl. I loved the wisdom of children in that text because she - the wisest character appears to be her daughter, and she just seems to be so flustered by all the - or just kind of irritated with all these adults acting like children. And it's - I just think that's wisdom for us.

SMOKLER: Also true.

BRIAN: (Unintelligible).

CONAN: Thanks very much, Brian.

BRIAN: Thank you for your wonderful conversation.

CONAN: Thank you.

SMOKLER: Thank you.

CONAN: We'll end with this email from Paulina in Coralville, Iowa: I'm rereading many books of my current high school senior. I am doing this under the guise of helping him with his essays. What I'm enjoying the most is discussing them with him. How different his perception of "Heart of Darkness" or "Huck Finn" as a 17-year old than mine as mid-40-year-old. So she's having your experience. Good luck with the book. Thank you so much for joining us.

SMOKLER: Oh, thank you for having me, Neal. It was a pleasure.

CONAN: Kevin Smokler joined us from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. The book, "Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven't Touched Since High School." Ira Flatow's here with TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY tomorrow, inauguration coverage on Monday. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News.

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