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May 18, 2011

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"Classic" literature, from high school, leaves a different impression, on an adult.

Once a month, I have a guaranteed multi-person adult discussion. It is my much-treasured Book Club. Now in our third year, our group has loved, hated, questioned and embraced quite a varied little "library."

In the past months, though, we've chosen some true classics: To Kill A Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. We wondered whether we'd have the same reactions to the stories and the characters, as we did when we were in high school, reading them for the first time. Certainly, teenagers tend to have unique outlooks, anyway, but would we agree with our sixteen-year-old-selves' opinions?

What we found, first, was that there is definitely a reason that these novels are considered "classics." They do stand the test of time. The language is extraordinarily beautiful; the characters are believable; the emotion is very powerful.

Secondly, we marveled at the details we had each forgotten. Yes, we remembered the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch's brave defense of a black man, accused of being too friendly with a white woman. None of us, however, remembered the earlier plotlines of the story, which involved Atticus and his sister agonizing over how to raise Jem and Scout. Similarly, we all remembered The Catcher in the Rye Holden's freedom that weekend in New York City, but did not recall the terribly dangerous characters that he encountered.

In other words, the first time we read the books, we were children. The second time we read them, we were mothers.

It's a simple, and as complicated as that.

Teenagers, rightly, are caught up in the excitement of a courtroom drama, followed by a Halloween night chase. They remain nonplussed about the great care and amazing wisdom displayed by a single father, honestly answering his child's enormous questions.

Likewise, high school readers are swept up in the excitement of a solo journey though a big city; they are empowered by a fellow-rebel's choice to escape. Hardly noticed are the narrow misses with real tragedy: a hustler looking for money in a lonely hotel room and a might-be-abuser taking advantage of a lost soul.

It is often said that motherhood changes everything. Indeed, how can it not? Instead of caring mostly for yourself, you move into a mode of placing yourself second, or third, or fourth. Instead of somewhat blissful ignorance, you are aware of every hidden danger. Our club of professional, intelligent, experienced and rookie mothers was overwhelmed by our new reactions to these charaters and stories.

Please add "the understanding and interpretation of classic literature" to the list of things that motherhood changes.


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