Classic Tales: Pelicans, Pennies and Pain

I am reading a book now that has got me thinking. It is The House on Mango Street. The jacket cover tells me that I ought to find it important; perhaps a classic. A classic? What exactly is one? My sixth grade English teacher snarkily informed us that a classic was just a book our parents had been made to read so they felt compelled to set us to reading. I came home and told my mother (a classics-lover if there ever was one) and I do believe this may have been one of the three times I have seen her really mad). I chatted with a friend the other night about this concept of “classics”. He felt that often a classic was simply a book of overblown reputation. Perhaps he and Mrs. Snarky were on the same page?

I took little english in highschool and none in college. Yes, none. So now I feel at times left out of the dialog. I try to catch up by reading the “classics” that I hear referred to, their names tossed around like ping-pong balls by those in the know. I read Shakespeare when riding the Muni to and from work one winter. Read all of Jane Austen at some point. I devoured Anna Karenina and The Age of Innocence kept me awake until 2 AM when I reached the horribly frustrating ending. I read classics to understand what all the hoopla is about; to be on the collective conversation. It seems to me that usually the classics are dubbed such for a reason. They are classic indeed.

The style of The House at Mango Street is interesting. It is written in very small chunks. Disjointed chapters with tantalizing titles telling, piece by piece the story of a girl’s youth in a poor Chicago neighborhood. It was a hard read; perhaps I was in the mood for a book with a plot? After one bout of trying to connect with this respected book I lay in the dark thinking about it. Then the magic of it hit me.

I also seem to experience life in disjointed moments of clarity. The days are filled with so much routine that is the punctuation that stands out. Our lives don’t have a plot really, they don’t have the suspense of a good novel. We move through the routine of life from moment of sharp juxtaposition to the next. So a book written in small chunks of observation, is a commentary on our routine lives – small offerings to be pondered and thought about. Bit by bit.

My night-time thoughts proved true in the morning. As I moved through my day it wasn’t the connecting pieces that struck me. Instead I would tell you a tale (much like that unfolding on Mango Street) of small moments. My 9 year old’s joy over finding he could buy a big basket of shells for the scant money left in his pocket.  Laughing at my children as they worked to count every pelican that soared overhead for days after their aunt offered to pay them a penny a pelican. She had no idea how observant they can be! The incredible pain of falling hard when least expecting it. These form the stories of our lives and these stories are often the ones worth considering classic.


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