Personal Literary Archaeology: Reading to Fill Gaps

This week I read two wildly different books—Scott McCloud’s The Sculptor, and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The first is an ultracontemporary graphic novel, new and innovative but at the same time a(n admirable) pastiche of familiar stories—without giving too much of the concept away, I can say that it samples superhero tropes, the story of King Midas, Faust, and much else. On the other hand, Wuthering Heights is Established to the point (perhaps) of stodginess, part of that canon that many of today’s writers variously reference, ape, and parry.

 This was my first experience of both books. I’d never read Wuthering Heights—this was the latest effort in my unofficial project to repair the gaps in my knowledge of the canon, which have been with me since my apparently lackadaisical high school let us make it through four years without reading The Great Gatsby or The Catcher in the Rye, or finishing several other classics. (To this day I have no idea how Heart of Darkness or A Tale of Two Cities ends. I swear, it was the course itself that bailed on them, not just me.)

But of course, despite not having read Heights itself, I’ve existed in the world for long enough to encounter countless parodies, pastiches, and derivatives. I’ve seen it in semaphore on Monty Python; I’ve seen Kate Beaton retell it in comic strips. Reading the novel, I recalled particularly a throwaway joke in Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (which must have been what I was reading instead of The Great Gatsby in high school):

“It struck me as pretty ridiculous to be called Mr. Darcy and to stand on your own looking snooty at a party. It's like being called Heathcliff and insisting on spending the entire evening in the garden, shouting "Cathy" and banging your head against a tree.” 

I’ve lived most of my life believing that this line was hyperbole, no more an accurate description of the plot of Heights than Monty Python’s semaphore version. But lo and behold: 

“He dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears. I observed several splashes of blood about the bark of the tree, and his hand and forehead were both stained; probably the scene I witnessed was a repetition of others acted during the night.”

There you have it. You live and you learn. 

It’s an interesting phenomenon to finally actually read a book that’s present enough in the collective cultural consciousness that you’ve long felt as though you’ve read it. Many expectations are frustrated; many are confirmed. I think there's even something to be said for waiting--I imagine that a line as good as "Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same" would have been wasted on me at age nineteen, riffling pages looking for a good essay topic. The whole experience is a bit like dream-logic, a bit like misplaced nostalgia for a past that isn’t precisely yours. And sitting these down with canonical and generic Urtexts helps you to understand everything that came after—I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, also for the first time, and I feel like I’m working backwards from more recent SFF works to one of their major inspirations. It's reading as archaeology, and it's fun as heck.

I’m trying to keep up a solid habit of reading both books like The Sculptor—brand new works that I can experience off the presses with no preconceived notions, keeping up with the latest in publishing—and Wuthering Heights—the classics-for-a-reason that, for good or ill, inform today’s work. It’s rare that I get to check both boxes in the same week. It’s been fun—maybe I’ll try to pair books this way again in the future.