The thing is, no teacher ever bothered to connect the dots for us.
“And today,” the teacher would say, “we are going to learn about the romances of King Arthur!”
“So,” we would reply, “like my mother’s romances in the cupboard—hooray! We’re going to learn about sex and happiness!”
“No!” The teacher was always scandalized at this point. “You are going to learn how sex makes people deeply unhappy and all of the life choices made under the guise of true love will ruin your existence forever.”
“Well shit,” we’d think. “King Arthur was a weenie who spoiled it for everybody.” And then we’d get a big salacious thrill out of watching Arthur, Gwenevere, Lancelot, Tristan, and Gawain completely screw up their lives.
But we didn’t see how it was romance.
But there was still hope somebody would teach us later.
“And today,” the teacher would say, “we are going to learn about the American Romantics!”
“Hooray!” we would reply. “Finally someone to explain to us all of the beautiful and delicious mysteries of mom’s cupboard books and why that gorgeous rich boss always falls for the nineteen-year-old virgin secretary!”
“No! We’re going to learn about wild men going into the woods and living without plumbing and raging alcoholics drinking themselves to death after making $25 on their best work and how foolish inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds!”
“Are you shitting me?” We were sort of pissed off by now. “What’s romantic about that?”
“Well, it was like the hippies in the sixties, everybody believed all you need is love, and expanding your mind, and beautiful songs and here—read The Scarlet Letter, you will understand.”
“Those people were seriously messed up. If I was Hester Prynne I’d move to some place where sex wasn’t illegal and stop sewing, because her kid needed a swift kick in the pants and Hester wasn’t doing it.”
And the teacher would get mad. “You people are completely missing the point. The American Romantics were a key period of time in literature. It was a time when the self was valued and the collective was suspect and people learned to listen to their own inner voices and—“
“Well that’s all very well and good, but where do we learn about the boy next door turning hot, like Ryan Reynolds and the girl next door wearing red lingerie—where’s the literary era that tells me about that?”
“Eventually,” the teacher says, pushing his/her spectacles up his/her nose, “you will lose the desire to read about that and dedicate yourself only to true literature. It says so in this teacher’s manual I have about the necessity of reading outside the literary canon which is why we give you ten minutes a day to read something of your own choice. Now commence Sustained Silent Reading.”
“Whatever.” And then we’d all dedicate ourselves to seeing if the hero and the heroine can overcome the big misunderstanding, because then there will be kissing and hugging and maybe even sex, and we can be happy we’re human beings after all.
Eventually, we think, somebody will explain to us why all that other crap is called romance.
But nobody ever does, and although we continue to read the good stuff, the stuff with the love and the kindness and the exciting personal growth and the sex, we feel a vague embarrassment about not reading the stuff our teachers told us was good. We go to garage sales with our mothers and buy (or learn to make) those quaint little book covers that keep our paperbacks from disintegrating and also hide the fact that we’re not all reading The Fountainhead or Joyce Carol Oates or 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
The Kindle is invented, and we can throw those covers away—but we still tell people we’re reading the literature so we don’t have to deal with romance reader’s shame—but nobody tells us why we should feel it.
Well, we shouldn’t.
Those original romances—King Arthur etc—were called romances because, instead of just coming in and blowing the bad guys out of the water in “I’ve come to kill your monster,” fashion, the heroes and heroines actually had individual personal lives that had nothing to do with the central military conflict.
There was no rule that said the personal life had to have a satisfactory ending. Most of the time, it didn’t.
The romantic poets took that idea—the idea of heroes having individual personal lives—a few steps further. They said that not only did the individual personal life of a hero matter– but that the life didn’t have to be a heroic one to have impact. Your average every day shepherd or gardener or chimney sweep had a soul, and a purpose, and a reason for being. It was this idea that allowed Jane Austen to write about a Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett when Elizabeth didn’t have any title or claim to royalty or even much money. She was an important individual by the grace of her intelligence and her person, and so we cared about what happened to her. So even without the happy ending (and the television viewer’s inner eye continually blessed by the vision of Colin Firth emerging from that pond in that big poofy shirt), Pride and Prejudice would still be a romance.
But thank you Jane Austen for giving us the happy ever after to strive for.
Sadly, the American Romantics didn’t learn as much from Ms. Austen as we did—they continued the idea of the individual, but the writers made this idea political. The individual against society was their favorite trope, because in the new world of America, sometimes the individual could win! Huzzah! Wasn’t that romantic?
Well, it was to Nathaniel Hawthorn and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It was also romantic to Edgar Allen Poe, who took this whole romantic notion of individual importance one step further and made what went on in the diseased person’s mind the end all and be all of their world—but that takes us into Gothic romance, which is another fun essay.
In the meantime, the frustrated student within us is crying out, “But what do all these bozos have to do with our beloved paperbacks! Our seduced heroines! Our larger than life heroes! Our Big Misunderstandings and Virgin Nannies! Why is it all called romance?”
Because the individual matters.
Because the individual’s happiness matters.
Because two people, in an uncertain world, with clashing cultures, life experiences, or belief systems, can touch in the truly cosmic way that only two souls can.
The love, the touching, the sex, the soul gaze—this is all icing on the concept that two hearts, happy, can make the world a better place.
That’s the missing link between what we were learning in school and learning in life. Individuals and their happiness are important. If all the individuals together can find happiness, you have a happy society. If two individuals have to fight the world to be together, you need to make a better world.
Because true love matters. Politicians may tell us that countries matter. Soldiers may tell us it’s wars.
But those of us reading the paperbacks from our mother’s cupboard know the same thing the great literary geniuses from history knew.
It’s that two people can meet, and touch, and fall in love.
That’s what matters.
That’s why we read.