Larry Efird: Reading — and living — the classics

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 20, 2021

As the curtain closes on A Year of Wonders, as well as on my teaching Odyssey that will soon be Gone with the Wind, I’ve been reflecting a great deal while simultaneously talking to my students about novels they might want to consider reading in the future — just for fun.

I know I’m one of The Last of the Mohicans when it comes to promoting the classics, and they’re probably starting to see me much like the aged fisherman in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea, but the truth is that I can still hear my own high school English teachers telling the teenage version of myself the same thing by recommending books that would help me stay on the path like Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. I’m glad they did that because I do get to read just for fun sometimes—and my students will too, once they don’t have to endure the Inferno of a course syllabus.

I’m currently reading my second novel by none other than the immortal William Faulkner in honor of my high school Humanities teacher, Mr. Jim Rodgers, a literary icon himself. He loved Faulkner. I wish I could say the same. But in my desire to be well read and to always be open to The Awakening of deeper thought and objectivity, I thought I’d give him another try. I’m not sorry I did.

The other day I went to the endodontist for an evaluation regarding a potential root canal. As I always do when going to a medical appointment, I took along something to read. When the endodontist entered the room, she asked what I was reading. I told her, As I Lay Dying, in which we both immediately caught the irony. We then went on to discuss our passion for books which fill most of the shelves in our respective houses.

I began thinking about other books I had read known for their evocative names, such as Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe, and The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis. Sometimes book titles are good examples of innocent double-entendres, when we say one thing but mean another.

Book titles can be ironically appropriate in addition to the message of the novels they proclaim. What teacher hasn’t had Things Fall Apart during a school day? And what student hasn’t heard the Sound and the Fury of a frustrated teacher who was trying to discern the Crime and Punishment in a given situation while wondering whether War or Peace would soon prevail? I’ve had my share of Frankenstein moments. But thankfully, a Paradise Regained can quickly result in a classroom Utopia, Far from the Madding Crowd.

The  first time I read The Great Divorce, I suspected one of our children was worried about his parents’ marriage. I had to tell him that was just a title of a book and that it had nothing to do with our family. It was a metaphor about the hypothetical divorce of Heaven and Hell. He seemed satisfied so I let it go. Subsequently, that encounter evoked a memory of when I was riding on an elevator in Dallas, Texas, held captive as I descended fifty floors, while two brassy women discussed in detail a co-worker’s good divorce. At first I only saw the paradox of their comment, until I figured out they were talking about a healthy settlement and lots of money. They were being literal, not literary. So it was a good divorce, Texas style!

I know I will never be able to read all the books my former teachers told me about, nor will I be able to read all the novels I’ve told my own students about, but I can say that teaching has helped me not to fear the Call of the Wild while doing my part to build a Brave New World. But whatever I do with my post teaching life, I’m sure books will help me continue to have Great Expectations. I hope I’ve taught my students that although they will undoubtedly encounter those in the world who have a Heart of Darkness, and sometimes our world of Pride and Prejudice will resemble The Lord of the Flies,  Shakespeare would remind us, All’s Well That Ends Well, and Love’s Labours (will never be) Lost.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.