An Introduction to Classics
If you've visited this corner of the Internet before, you may know that I love reading classics. I don't know when or how my love for them began, but I know that it helped having great teachers in high school who made them feel exciting and relevant to my life. Were they boring and confusing sometimes? Absolutely! But I was able to develop an appreciation for them that I still have today.
Not everyone feels that way about classics. For a lot of people, the word "classics" brings up images of assigned reading and antiquated language. You might picture dry, boring books that suck the life out of you while you're reading them. I understand that response - it really does make sense.
Classics are typically books that you have to read at some point in your life, and sometimes people turn up their noses if you haven't read certain classics... as if you're less of a reader because of it. All that combined, I understand why many readers aren't interested in classics.
My Classics Conundrum
But I'm sometimes torn on classics. These are two of my reading truths:
- Reading should be enjoyable, and life is too short to read books that you dislike.
- What you choose to read doesn't determine whether or not you're a "reader," and no one should be dismissed or belittled for what they like to read.
But I also believe these two things:
- Sometimes, you have to work the hardest for the things that are most worth it.
- Just as you shouldn't dismiss what others like to read, you shouldn't dismiss an entire category of books as something you "don't like" just because of experiences you've had in the past.
This is my classics conundrum. I can absolutely understand why people say things like: "I just don't like classics" or "Classics are hard to read, and I don't want to force myself through them." I get it! But it also makes me sad because it sounds so dismissive and final.
Classics are the foundation upon which literature is built. You wouldn't have the books you read today without the books that came before them. They've paved the way for books you know and love. Does that mean you're required to read classics? Certainly not. But I think you're missing out if you just dismiss them as a whole.
Why Read the Classics?
Writer Italo Calvino wrote a book titled Why Read the Classics? It's a collection of thirty-six essays that aim to answer this daunting question. While I haven't read the book, I've added it to my TBR after seeing Calvino's 14 definitions of a classic (source). Here are two definitions that stood out to me.
2. The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.
As someone who has loved a number of classics, I wholeheartedly agree with Calvino's assessment that they are a "treasured experience." But I like the second part of that definition even more. I love the phrase "reserve the chance" because that's what I want to encourage non-classics readers to do. To give classics a chance WHEN the time is right. Classics aren't going anywhere - you don't have to rush out and read them right away. Just keep an eye out for when the time is right for you to give one a try.
11. 'Your' classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.
I love the idea of finding "your" classic. Not every classic will be a good fit for you, will impact you, or will stay with you. But that's true of books in general. I hate when people say - "Oh, young adult is so juvenile and cheesy." Are some young adult books more juvenile than others? Sure. Just like some classics are more boring than others. The goal is to find the classics that are a good fit for you!
8 Tips for Reading Classics
When you pick up a classic, you're reading a book that's been read and loved (or hated) by millions before you. It's simultaneously specific to the time in which it was written but often still relevant to your life today. So, here are eight things to try if you're just getting started with classics:
1. Adjust your attitude. Often, the first step is adjusting your attitude. You can't let past experiences or preconceived notions keep you from missing out on some of the best books history has to offer. Not interested in reading them now? That's cool. Just don't say never! Keep your reading horizons open. Don't read them out of obligation, but don't dismiss them entirely either.
2. Start at the beginning. I think one of the best ways to start reading classics, particularly if you've struggled with them in the past, is to start with children's classics. They're often more accessible and can be a great place to begin your classics journey. Whether it's Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables, there are so many great options out there to try. As you grow comfortable with children's classics, you can start branching out even more.
3. Go slow. Another thing I've found helpful is to take it slow when I'm reading a classic. I usually read really fast, so it's sometimes hard for me to adjust to reading classics because I need to read at a much slower pace. I usually need to go slow to fully grasp what is going on, what the characters are saying and how they're all related. So what do you do when feel like it's taking forever to finish one book? Well, great question...
4. Mix it up. I like to read classics while I'm reading something else. I'll pick other books that are lighter and faster reads, and I'll alternate which book I'm reading. It's hard to confuse the two books/plots since they're typically really different, so that avoids one issue many people have with reading multiple books at the same time. Reading a newer book and a classic at the same time often helps me enjoy the classic more than I would have if I'd devoted my attention solely to it.
5. Take a break. I don't usually read classics back-to-back. While some people can, I typically take a break after finishing a classic before I read another. It's nice to take a breather - to step away and focus on lighter/easier reads. It helps me clear my mind and get refreshed before diving into another challenging read.
6. Find a reading buddy. Any time I want to tackle a classic that intimidates me, I team up with my cousin, Rachel. We'll figure out a loose schedule so we're always in the same general section of the book, and then we just read and discuss via text message, email and/or phone calls. We motivate each other to keep going if there's a boring section. We get clarification from each other on plot points that we think are confusing. We share what quotes we've loved, what's made us stop and think, or what's made us want to toss the book across the room in frustration. It makes the reading experience so much better, particularly for a book that's difficult. We don't take it too seriously - it's just about having someone there to help you make it through to the other side when the going gets tough.
7. Do your research. While it's not always necessary, sometimes it helps me to do a little research on a classic before I begin. I want to know when it was written and at least a little bit about why it was influential at that time. What was the public's reaction to the book? What are some of the themes to be aware of while reading? For some classics, I'll even print out a list of the characters and their relationship to each other and then tuck it in the front of the book for reference. The point isn't to make it feel like homework - it's just to enrich your reading experience by being able to understand the book in its original context. It also helps me appreciate a book if I have a better sense of its significance in the literary landscape.
8. Apply yourself. Finally, look for ways that these books are still relevant to you today. It's easy to look at a classic and see nothing to applies to your life. After all, you aren't going to have to wear a literal scarlet letter for committing adultery like Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. But haven't you seen references to and discussions about slut shaming in popular YA novels? Isn't Hester's story, in a way, just an early example of this concept? I enjoy classics more when I'm able to connect to them, to see myself or some aspect of my world in them, even when they were written in a completely different time and place.
Never Say Never
This isn't a post to guilt anyone into reading more classics because I'm certainly not the reading police. No one can tell you what you have or should to read. It just doesn't work that way. And I won't love anyone less for never picking up a classic.
But it's also good to stretch yourself and to be challenged to try new (or old) things. I've seen posts and comments lately where people just emphatically declare that classics (and occasionally other genres) aren't for them, and it reminds me of the adults I talk to who say they'll never read Young Adult books. "But why never?" I want to ask. Don't shut yourself off completely from books that are out of your comfort zone. You never know where a book might take you or what it might teach you.
Here is one of my favorite things I've found on the Internet. This graphic, created by Matchbook Magazine, lists 50 classic novels that are a great starting point if you've got no idea where to begin!
So, let's discuss!
How do you feel about the classics: love, hate or indifferent?
Thinking about trying any of the tips I mentioned?