I took all the advanced English courses when I was in high school and thus missed a gem that most Americans have read by the time they are eighteen – The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Apparently, in my high school, that was reserved for the regular English courses.
I was much older when I read it, listened to it, actually, on CD while commuting to work, and I understand now both why my high school friends hated reading it and why it is classical literature.
They hated it because not much happens. An old dude goes out by himself on the ocean and catches a monstrous fish and …, well, I won’t give the ending away. You’ll have to read it for yourself. But that’s about it for action.
It’s classical literature for many reasons. Hemingway said it was the best he ever wrote. Many agreed, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for it, and it was a major factor in him receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature. It’s well worth reading if, like me, you missed out on the opportunity to read it when you were younger.
One of the themes of the book that struck a chord for me is the consequences of aging. The old man is not willing to accept his aging, and he believes that through stubbornness, a lifetime of acquired skills, and simply sheer will, he can avoid those consequences. However, in the end, the old man discovers there is no escape. Hemingway was fifty-two years old when he wrote The Old Man and the Sea and I have to believe he was feeling his age at the time.
I’ve often wondered why high school teachers ask their young students to read this work. It does have obvious credentials, but so do many other works. It’s short, so it makes Hemingway accessible to teenagers, not many of them would get through For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance, so that’s a possibility. But I think there might be another reason.
For me, reading The Old Man and the Sea helped instill a desire to ‘seize the day’, to act while I still could. I know there are many things I cannot do today that I did with ease twenty or thirty years ago. I also know that twenty years from now, I won’t be able to do things that I can do today. Maybe being asked to read The Old Man and the Sea isn’t the curse most American high school students think it is. Maybe it’s more a gift from their teachers to encourage them not to waste their youth, but rather to make their lives meaningful. I think there’s a message in it for all of us not to put off doing things that are important to us.
Along with reading The Old Man and the Sea, I’d read some of Jack McDevitt’s work. He also waited until much later in life to start writing. Then I read a fun book by Terry Brooks on becoming a writer and I decided I would at least take a creative writing class. I had many ideas kicking around in my head, the basic concept of Beaches of Brazil had been there almost twenty years, but I didn’t know what to do with those ideas.
My first piece I wrote for the creative writing class was an Ode to Manchester United, and I couldn’t have chosen a better topic for myself. I didn’t even try to make the poetry rhyme or follow the proper structure of an ode, but my teacher and the class loved it anyway. That experience, along with the quote from Hemingway about first drafts, freed me from many of the mental constraints I’d placed on myself and allowed me to finally enjoy writing.
So I decided to seize the day.
Even if I had never sold any of my work, I wouldn’t have considered writing a waste of time. It’s important to me. I love writing, I love the process, and, as I said in a previous blog, I’ve become hopelessly addicted to it.
My goal is now to publish twenty novels before I turn seventy!