Classics – Take ’em or Leave ’em

I have spent the last few weeks trying to list all of the classic books I’ve read. First I listed titles from memory, then I looked at my book shelves, and finally I looked up some reputable lists of classic books online.

As it turns out, I am not as well read in the classics as I would like to be. Most of the titles I’ve read were Assigned Reading in high school and university. Since then I have read only for pleasure, and I must have assumed that the classics weren’t very pleasurable. Except when I actually read them! In my adult life, I’ve read Frankenstein and Jane Eyre and Slaughterhouse Five, and others, and loved them. So why not more?

The Intimidation Factor

Smart people like and discuss The Classics. To get the most out of them, you have to be educated. I  am no slouch, but I haven’t read enough of the classics to pick up the historical and literary references in a lot of Great Novels. I’ve never studied literary criticism. I won’t go so far as to say “I only know what I like.” But I am sure that if I were better versed in history, or well-travelled, I would get more out of them.

The Solution: Read them anyway. Read them for curiosity or for enjoyment. Maybe someday I’ll read something else that will tell me what I should have spotted while reading Lolita. In the meanwhile, I can form my own opinions!

The Medicinal Factor

You are supposed to read the classics because they are good for you. They inform you, persuade you, or stir your emotions. They improve your character or reinforce good values. Any good rebel is then compelled to either avoid them or mock them. And not many will make the effort to read a difficult book only to argue against it.

The Solution: Read them with an attitude. I will take my pick from, “Everyone says this is great so I will like it too,” or “I am going into this with an open mind,” or “I am going to hate this but I want to know what the fuss is about.”

The Slog Factor

Let’s face it, a lot of so-called classics are just plain ornery. They are lengthy, and verbose, and pedantic, and use antiquated language. They are too descriptive. I have to look up too many words and read too many footnotes. I would rather read the new Bridget Jones.

The Solution: Take breaks. Read something else for a while. Skim some parts. Skip the unusual words or guess at them from context. Forget about the footnotes. Read a summary of the book to motivate you to get to the good parts. Find out about the author’s life which was probably a whale of a story, too.

The Social Factor

Some books are so much a part of our culture that it’s assumed everyone has read them. Romeo and Juliet, Aesop’s Fables, The Hobbit, the Bible…eventually I’ll be found out and exposed if I haven’t read them! Then what? Do I fake my way through a conversation (in which I’ll be pitied for not having The Experience of Having Read the Books) or do I confess? Will I be ridiculed and thought to be an illiterate fool?

The Solution: Be genuine. “You know, I’ve never read any Hemingway. It seems like his stuff is so macho. What do you like about his writing?” I am always willing to be persuaded. If I disagree with the Hemingway fan, I can make a good case against his work when we meet again! If I still haven’t read any, I will sound smarter about it: “I know you said Hemingway was so concise and elemental, but I just haven’t been in the mood.” Never mind that I was actually in the mood for the latest Jodi Picoult 🙂

The Absence of Novelty Factor

Working in a library, new books pique my interest every single day. When a new book gets rave reviews, I can’t wait to get my hands on it. Not so David Copperfield or Middlemarch. I can always read them later. I never thought I’d make it to age 50 without reading any Dickens, but here I am. Later has not arrived. I read lots of good quality books, just not old ones. I hear so much about them that I have preconceptions and think I know them. I bet I don’t.

The Solution: Pick a classic title at random from a list. Choose an author I’ve never read and that no one has ever lectured me about. Browse the classics in a brick-and-mortar bookstore where I can see the snazzy new book covers. Or download one for free, since the copyright has run out! (I read Sherlock Holmes that way).

So what makes a classic a classic?

I think it’s different than the best-loved or most popular books. Otherwise 50 Shades of Grey would be a classic! I have some respect for a book that becomes a phenomenon. Better yet, I like a book that influences public opinion, like Silent Spring, or captures its era, like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I like books that motivate me (Diary of a Young Girl inspired me to keep a journal for decades) or incite me (I hated Lord of the Flies, but it riled me into working for democracy and against our baser instincts!)

For me, a classic must have been noted by critics for its literary qualities, in addition to whatever popularity it gains. And, it must have stood the test of time. There is no question that in the decades ahead, the Harry Potter books will be known as classics, either because of fans’ enjoyment of them, or for their ability to be loved again by a new generation. And they probably have more literary quality than the Captain Underpants books, although those have been in print for 17 years now and may have classic status themselves!

I think that the short list of classics I’ve read has enriched my life. They make me feel part of the Great Conversation that is culture and education and personal experience and reflection. I want reading the classics to be a part of my life and my future. I just need to finish W is for Wasted first!

I solemnly uphold the right for everyone to read whatever they wish. You can’t win the classics game anyway. Eventually I’ll chat with someone about Aristotle and they’ll trump me by asking, “But have you read him in the original Greek?”

Have you read many of the so-called classics?

Further reading:

World Library 100 (Norway, 2002) – I have read 15

Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century (France, 1999) – I have read 10

Time Magazine All-Time 100 Novels (USA, 2005) – I have read 10

The Guardian 100 Greatest Novels of All Time (UK, 2003) – I have read 20

New York Public Library’s Books of the Century (USA, 1996) – I have read 32

100 Novels that Make You Proud to be Canadian (Canada, 2014) – I have read 19

Number of unique titles I’ve read from all these lists combined: 79

 

50 comments

  1. I read a lot of classics as a child (the abridged versions). Now that I’m “all grown up”, I can’t bring myself to read the original versions for the reasons you alluded to above: archaic language, too voluminous etc. The older I get, the lazier my literary choices to be honest

    • Hi Yetunde, Whenever I read a classic, I like it. It’s just hard making myself pick them up! I read a mix of literary novels and light stuff depending on my mood. Like you, I don’t always have patience for struggling with a book. There are so many fun, easy ones waiting to be read!

  2. EcoCatLady

    Umm… let’s see. I guess “no” would be the obvious answer. I’ve read 15 from those lists combined… 16 if you count the Joy of Cooking but I can’t really say I’ve “read” that one!

    I dunno, there’s just something about sitting down to read a book like that, that feels like work to me. Especially anything Russian. I mean, we had to read Crime & Punishment in school, and I never figured out what my crime was, but reading that book was sure Punishment. I couldn’t keep any of the characters straight to save my life! At some point I just gave up and read the cliffnotes – as I did with many of those classic novels.

    I remember trying to slog my way through The House of Seven Gables in High School and it was torture. Descriptive passages are one thing, but I think the dude spent something like 3 pages describing swans swimming on a lake. Perhaps those books were written for an era when people had gobs of empty time that they were trying to fill up with things like, say, descriptions of swans, but personally, I’m much more into plot.

    Oddly enough, I’ve seen a pile of movies based on novels on those lists and pretty much enjoyed them all. So, I guess that just means that I am lazy!

    • Hi Cat, that’s something I hadn’t thought of – that long descriptions were provided because the readers didn’t travel or experience a lot of things as we do today.

      I love Russian literature – it’s the Hemingway/Faulkner/Conrad type stuff I dislike! Or rather, think I dislike, because I’ve hardly read any of it.

  3. Fiona

    I’ve read 44 – I’ve tried to read quite a few more but some are so deathly dull that I don’t think I’ll ever make it through them. I love the lists though. Also good Kindle fodder as many are free downloads.

    • I’m not brilliant at slogging through the long and dull ones. Maybe our high school teachers had the right idea. We read “selections” of the Iliad and Odyssey, and the Canterbury Tales, and discussed them. It helped our cultural literacy without crushing our spirits, LOL!

  4. Gam Kau

    I spend an inordinate amount to time discussing Captain Underpants with a little boy in the neighbourhood. My children loved the books and I was surprised to see how many more have been released!

    “I am no slouch, but I haven’t read enough of the classics to pick up the historical and literary references in a lot of Great Novels” – this pretty much sums up how I feel. On occasion I make a vow to broach the classics and put aside leisurely reading, but my more practical side usually wins and I decide life is too short to feel obligated about reading. I have my reservations about how the classics were deemed “classic”. It somewhat reminds me of “good taste” in clothing or decor. I’m dubious it’s universal.

    • I could have put a whole other category in why most people don’t read classics, and that is the “Dead White (European) Male” argument. On one hand, how can we relate to anything written by Shakespeare or Voltaire? On the other hand, it’s the job of an author to create characters and worlds we believe in, and some have done a stunning job of getting outside themselves and into their characters. I think that’s why I have never regretted reading any of the classics. Usually the quality of the writing is enough to get me past the social standing or historical era of the author. I just won’t be reading Homer any time soon 🙂

  5. urbanmythcafe

    I sometimes think of it the other way around. I don’t have much time for fiction, so if am gong to read, why should I be reading some new “pulp” fiction instead of some of the greatest stuff ever written?

    Sure, some stuff labeled as “classic” is a real drag, but there are things out there that really are gems, too. Last year, I finally read “The Grapes of Wrath.” It was hands down one of the best novels ever. I will remember images and thoughts from that book until the day I die. Compare this with a hundred other novels off the shelf that I have read in my life that I will never remember.

    Is “Rebecca” on those classic lists? I have read it probably 10 times in the last 30 years. There is not a page in that book that could not be read aloud on stage.

    I looked at the New York Public Libraries list, and I have to say that I think that it is well chosen. The books on the list seem very significant, like, yeah, I really should be reading that…

    • I really like the themes in the NYPL list. And I have seen Rebecca on lists, for sure. I loved how Le Monde created its list. They got replies from 17,000 people to the question, “Which books have stayed in your memory?” I am 50/50 on the quality versus popularity question. On my death bed, I may moan, “Why, oh why didn’t I ever read War and Peace?” but also “I never found out was Z was for!” (Sue Grafton)

    • I’m a re-reader of Rebecca too. And surprisingly, I forget bits, so it is always a joy. And always scary.

      I met a guy from Ohio and had him read bits from Grapes of Wrath aloud to me. It was fantastic hearing the voices!

      • urbanmythcafe

        Glad to hear from another reader of Rebecca. There are so many things that I love about that book. I love how Rebecca imagines things in her mind. I love how evil Mrs. Danvers is, but I also love that the novel ends well, although it never feels like it will.

  6. I’m a reader of classics, but like any books or author, I have favourites and some I just won’t read. I can’t stand Dickens. He’s bloody long-winded. Great plot, poor telling of the story. Just hate his style. Don’t fancy Hemmingway – he wouldn’t know an adjective if it got an elephant gun and shot him. Austin, I can read again and again. Many of the classics I read for enjoyment, not study, years ago and I forget I’ve read them, until I read a précis of the book. Embarrassingly, some I think I’ve read and realise I watched a movie or TV shoe. Opps!

    But, like you, the new stuff attracts me. It is amazing that humans can write and write and write. That new formations of our 26 letters comes in seemingly unending variations.

    I’ve read three from the Canadian list. I question the inclusion of Catton on the list. Don’t you know it is Australia’s right to claim everything Kiwi, successful that is, as ours (why would we claim anything unsuccessful?) based on whatever crumb we can find. Poor NZ. Now Canada’s doing it to them too. Yes, she was born in Canada as her father was studying there but her family returned to NZ when she was six and she lives in Auckland.

    • The Canadian media are just ridiculous about claiming that anyone born in Canada or once living in Canada is a Canadian author. Same with art, music, athletics, etc.

      I get a little fuzzy on what I’ve read before too, or have seen as a movie, or even a play. I had to think really hard about the lists, and I didn’t report reading anything I wasn’t sure of!

  7. Juhli

    I really love that the Surgeon General’s Report is on the New York Public Library’s list! Reading should change the world (or simply entertain LOL). I once started trying to read the books that won the Nobel Prize for literature and couldn’t get through the first one as it was very archaic. I like these lists a lot better and will be looking for new reads as I have gotten very lazy.

  8. Great post and solid advice. Sometimes, even the best of novels are hard getting into, so they deserve a 100 page investment. It is not unusual for setting the stage to be less interesting, but needed.

    My daughter said something interesting to me about the Harry Potter books. Mind you, she has read each one about seven times, so she would qualify as well read with Potter. She told me last week at the age of 16, that the writing in the Potter books is entertaining to a point. While she enjoyed them immensely when younger, she noted that the story in each book is largely the same with a few changes. I have not read the Potter books, so I cannot judge the merits of her comments. What is your reaction to observations?

    • I give up on light reading very quickly if it doesn’t keep my interest. For classics, if I don’t like one, I read another classic – so I still feel virtuous 🙂 I do give them more of a chance, though.

      You are outing me as one of the few non-fans of Harry Potter. I barely got through the first two books. The best things about them (I thought) were the good versus evil plot, the sense of mischief, and the character development. But the third person narration and the long descriptive passages bored me to tears. I actually liked the movies better (I have seen them all). I thoroughly approve of Harry Potter books being on Best Loved lists, and greatest pop culture impact.

  9. I mostly read non-fiction, but a few years ago I decided that my education had some gaping holes in it that needed to be filled in. I never learned (I don’t think I was ever taught) the Greek gods or Greek mythology. I read a good translation of the Odyssey, and then some adult and kid’s books on greek myths. I also read a lot of Hindu mythology before traveling to India.

    I’ve read many of the twentieth century classics (I’ve read 39 on the NYPL list but heavier in some categories than others), but not much before, other than what I was required to read in high school.

    • I have gone through long phases of reading nonfiction. Someday I’d like to read some classic nonfiction – I have read some philosophy, but not much science, history or travel.

  10. Lisa

    And here I thought I was well read…what have I been doing with my reading time!?! I also believe in reading what you wish; however you have re-energized my desire to incorporate some of the books on these lists into my reading time. Like others, I have been meaning to, but a fun ‘new’ read, a book club read, laziness etc. keeps moving the books to the back of the line. I recently tried to read Les Miserables, but encountered the ‘slog factor’.

    • In the past two years I have only read 3 books that appeared on any of these lists, and they were all modern! This year I am putting a priority on my Reading Down the House books, and book club books. After those, I figure I’ve done my quota of required reading, so I pick fun stuff!

  11. I have to say I have only read about 2, and they were when at school! I am a lazy reader, I like easy reading, escapism, mainly chic lit..generally have a reading splurge then dont read again for months..I have to say I have no real desire to read them..so its leave ’em for me..

    • That’s the way it should be; no one should feel obliged to read anything because they’re “supposed to.” The majority of adults don’t read books. I am keen on them myself, and I read a smattering of everything.

  12. I love love love the classics! For me, it is the insight into a different world. Jane Austen’s world is fascinating. The dresses and balls and lack of feminism. Shakespeare’s World is dramatic and poetic and filled with scandal. Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Sherlock – chilling to the bone. If I find one too difficult to read, I just put it down! I didn’t enjoy Wuthering Heights (gasp – I know), so I never finished it.

    • I suffered through Wuthering Heights (quite recently) and hated it! But wanted to finish it so I could discuss why I disliked it so much! I do drop difficult ones sometimes – in the past year or so I put down Dante’s Inferno and I don’t know if I’ll go back to it.

  13. I rarely read classics these days. Most of the books I read are suggested to me by the book blogs I follow or people I know, so they’re often newly published (last 5 years or so).

    I read classics much more often in school. I think the biggest obstacle for me (besides being required reading, which I despise) was that as a teen I didn’t yet have the world view and experience of older readers who were making us read these books. I could not relate to 90% of what was going in classics, which seemed to be mainly about adults and more mature issues – war (told from the point of view of adults, not children/teens), class issues or elitism, extramarital affairs, depression/mental illness, power hungry leaders, etc. and so I didn’t care about the characters. Just things I hadn’t yet encountered in my life, and I’m not saying these topics never impact teens – but I would have preferred a teenage character to tag along with. At 15, being told to read The Great Gatsby and discuss his behavior when I’d never even been on a date . . I didn’t enjoy it.

    However, when I look over lists of children’s classics, I’ve read and enjoyed many of them, or even classics with a younger main character, like To Kill a Mockingbird and Treasure Island .

    • Excellent point, Amanda! It really is hard to relate to more mature characters when you’re young. I especially felt that when reading The Stone Angel, and even A Christmas Carol! It’s hard to get the impact when you haven’t yet dealt with much significant loss, regret, etc. But sometimes a character breaks through – like you say, usually a younger one – like Jane Austen’s scheming matchmaker, Emma!

  14. My few thoughts: I am known in my library as something of a literary snob. The New York Times Bestseller List, to me, is a list of the books I won’t be reading. Many people say they read to escape, and thus they read romances, mysteries, bestsellers. I also read to escape. But I am escaping the mediocrity and sameness of everyday things all around me, into something excellent and artful and timeless. You don’t have to be educated to enjoy classic literature, only experienced. The more you read, the better you get. Remember the old librarian’s quip about new books: every book is new until you’ve read it. And you can be picky. I, for instance, have never developed a taste for Jane Austen, try though I might. There are plenty of other classic authors. Dostoevsky, Dickens and Hawthorne are my favorites, and I read them sparingly. In my fifties now, there are still books from all three I haven’t read yet. Saving them for special times. But when you are being picky, remember this: There was a very famous Great Books class taught for decades at Columbia University. The final exam always carried this question: What is your least favorite book we read this semester, and what is the flaw in your character that made it so?

  15. I’ve read more than I had thought on the NYPL list. There are definitely a few on there that have been on my “to read” list for a while (like, Brave New World). I will try extra hard to get to those this summer. Others, I’d rather not spend time reading something I think I “should” read. There are too many things out there that I want to read.

  16. From your first list I have read 14 including Nineteen Eighty-Four which I detested! Our final year of school English books were all based around a theme of the future and we also had to read A Clockwork Orange, another book I did not enjoy. I think it was imagining such a horrible future! Luckily, I much preferred Pride and Prejudice and Jane Eyre which we read in English Literature. Recently, I’ve been dipping back into the classics but only the ones that appeal to me. That’s the great thing about not being at school!

  17. I did a count and I’ve only read 14 titles from all the lists. Embarrassingly, I remember STARTING to read about over 20 other titles from the lists; however, I don’t actually recall FINISHING the novels. Oops. This includes novels such as The Lord of the Rings, Dracula and even Pride & Prejudice. Oops.

  18. I’ve read less than 25 so no would probably be the answer. Some I slogged through in school – Brave New World. Others like Gatsby I read as a teenager and hated. Now, after reading it again, it’s one of my favourite books.

    If I’m honest my book reading is mainly on the ‘light reading’ side, but I do love the odd classic. My favourite is Madam Bovary.

    • I am one of those odd ducks who loves all the Russian classics, and I trust I have a few decades left to read more of them! I bet I would like more of my school reading now too, with more life experience to draw on.

      • Laura / No More Spending

        Even ‘Madame’ That French A Level has served me well 🙂 🙂

      • Laura, Posy Simmonds did a graphic novel loosely based on Madame Bovary, called Gemma Bovery – you would really enjoy it – you may have already seen it when it was published in The Guardian.

  19. Just checking you out after a long time. A really interesting post. Mostly I read contemporary writers unless it’s for work ( I teach), but have just read Wide Sargasso Sea. Loved it.

    • Hi Doris, Welcome back! I read mostly contemporary authors, too – any classics I read seem to be exceptions. But I always like the ones I read, and should probably make room for more. Haven’t read the Wide Sargasso Sea – sounds like you recommend it!

  20. I have read many classics, but most of them when I was younger.

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