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?
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