The more things change…

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July 20, 2012 by JL Walker

Lake and cloudsHow 2 books from 150-200 years ago are strangely relevant today

You know the expression, right? Of course, as anyone who’s studied Homer or Shakespeare or any sort of classic lit can tell you, the human condition hasn’t really changed all that much over the centuries. The ancient Greeks didn’t have smartphones or airplanes, but they did know a thing or two about love, life, tragedy, and the most important things that we all have in common. And people still read the classics today because of that.

Even though I’m a fan of well-written TV and movies, I still take the time to read some classics now and then. And since books published before 1923 are free and easy to access on my ereader, I’ve downloaded quite a few books that I had never read before. Here are just 2 books that seem especially relevant to my life in Italy.

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen (1817)

“Where people wish to attach, they should always be ignorant. To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.”

Whether or not Austen was poking fun at the dated idea that women should learn everything they know from their future husbands, this has some truth to it. Working as an English teacher to adults, I learned that the best way to teach conversation is to discuss a topic that you truly know nothing about. Asking questions is easier because you probably don’t know what the answer is going to be and you might be interested in the issue. And the person doing the talking feels more at ease because, even though they might feel uncomfortable speaking in a different language, they’re at least explaining a topic they know more about than the listener does.

And, on a more romantic note, part of the reason I fell in love with my special someone is that he taught me a lot: about the Italian language, cooking and dancing (ok, to be honest, that last one didn’t really stick, but it was fun attempting a few salsa steps even without any coordination or skills whatsoever). And of course the learning was reciprocal. That’s what relationships are based on, anyway, sharing different points of view and being able to learn about the little world the other person occupies.

So thank you, Jane Austen, for making this completely true and relevant point about new relationships. As usual, you’ve made a good point. And I know I’m not the only Jane Austen fan of my generation, judgeing by the number of movies that  have been based on her novels in the past few decades.

The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain (1869) 

No five-minute boltings of flabby rolls, muddy coffee, questionable eggs, gutta-percha beef, and pies whose conception and execution are a dark and bloody mystery to all save the cook that created them!

No, we sat calmly down … and poured out rich Burgundian wines and munched calmly through a long table d’hote bill of fare, snail patties, delicious fruits and all, then paid the trifle it cost and stepped happily aboard the train again.

Mark Twain wrote this book to record his experience on a long tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land by ship. I haven’t finished it yet, but he describes his travels around France and Italy in detail, and it’s interesting to read his impressions of France from almost 150 years ago as similar to my first impressions of France’s neighbor, Italy.

This excerpt describes the difference between eating during a train layover in the US and in France. Other than wondering what the heck gutta-percha could be (ok, it is on Wikipedia), it just shows that these two places have had different culinary cultures for at least several generations.

This is one of those concepts that Americans notice right away and generally assume they made a novel discovery. Well, Mark Twain made that same discovery 150 years ago, so I certainly wasn’t the first. And I won’t be the last.

In the future, I’ll be downloading more books that are no longer protected by copyright. The classics are classic for a reason: they hold lots of insight on the human condition. And because foreigners, travelling and expatriation have always existed, it’s a pretty good guess that other writers have already experienced what I’m going through by living in this foreign land.

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