July 26, 2013

The Classics Conundrum

Source
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!
Source
So, let's discuss!
How do you feel about the classics: love, hate or indifferent?
Thinking about trying any of the tips I mentioned?

22 comments:

  1. Basically I just love your sum up of:

    "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."

    It reminded me of:

    “…the neat sorting-out of books into age-groups, so dear to publishers, has only a very sketchy relation with the habits of any real readers. Those of us who are blamed when old for reading childish books were blamed when children for reading books too old for us. No reader worth his salt trots along in obedience to a time-table.”
    —C.S. Lewis

    I try not to think in terms of "genres" as much as I can. I think I do draw to classics a lot but no more than say, childrens books or WWII historical fiction. I would love it if more people (including me sometimes) would just read things that look interesting regardless of genre. I can tell everyone from personal experience that writing off a book because you already know you won't like it due to genre (or other reasons) is just sad. (Harry Potter anyone? Gone with the Wind?)

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    1. To continue the thought I guess and be extremely chatty now: I love classics. Personally I can read some of them back to back to back and not be bored or worn out. One of my favorite quotes is "The definition of a classic is a story written in a way that it never tires of telling it" or something along those lines. I swear it's from a book but I don't remember what.

      I found that once I pushed through some Jane Austen and got used to the older vocabulary and structures, classics were much easier to enjoy and keep reading new ones. Classics are not boring if you find the right story! It's not much different than finding a book in the current printing market. Sometimes you find amazing stuff, sometimes it's just crap, and sometimes you can't really decide because it's so boring you don't even know how to form an opinion.

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  2. I love your emphasis on finding the right time to read a classic. As you indicated, most of us associate classics with assigned reading in schools, which was dead boring but also tackled subjects generally over young readers' heads. I presented a paper at a conference once encouraging teachers to pair classics and contemporaries that have similar themes to help students build a bridge between the two and perhaps find the classic more accessible. With that said, I have re-read in recent years books I was forced to read in middle school and high school that I hated or didn't finish, and I love them now. Tess of the D'Urbervilles comes to mind first. There is something to be said about the right attitude and time when approaching a classic. Great post!

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  3. My top three all time favorite books include two classics (one of which is a children's/young adult book) & one modern book. Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, Betsy & the Great World by Maud Hart Lovelace, & Saving Cece Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman. However just because you love an author doesn't mean you love all their works.
    I have been re-reading Jane Austen this summer. I struggled with Sense & Sensibility. I had forgotten that Marianne Dashwood is such a twit! While her silliness annoyed me, Mr Collin's in P & P makes me laugh.
    The Betsy series follows Betsy from a little girl, on up through her first years of marriage. While the little girl years have a charm, it is Betsy as a young woman that I love. She is just the kind of plucky heroine that I adore!
    Cece I first listened to on cd in my car and then read the book because I loved it so much. The authors latest book while enjoyable is not one I will read again. Cece however I will revist over & over. That what a classic does for me. They are old friends I am always happy to see.
    Books on cd are a great way to finally get to a classic on your to read list. Recently listened to To Kill A Mockingbird. It came to life when read with a southern accent by Sissy Spacek. Local library has quite a few classics.
    In high school did a report on Willa Cather. At the time, found her writings hard to understand and quickly became bored. A friend of mine has suggested that I revisit Willa as an adult. Her theory being that you see things differently at various stages of your life. What you found dull as a teenager may appeal to you as a middle aged woman. She and I are neighbors. We often have an unofficial book club with a glass of wine on one or another's porch. She has passed on many a book to me that I loved. Books I probably wouldn't have picked up on my own. But we don't judge! We always tell each other "if it doesn't appeal to you don't read it". No matter how much I love Harry Potter, it's just not her type.
    Also if I read some fluff, which is anything you would read in paperback by the pool or on the beach, Ok maybe I judge a bit, I try to follow up with a 'serious read'. That way when asked what you have read lately you don't have to be embarrased! Instead of saying Jackie Collins - Poor Little B Girl you can say I am reading the Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows. It's sure to be a classic!

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  4. Thanks for sharing the checklist! I've only read a few classics and I plan to read more so this really helps with what to read next.

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  5. This is a fantastic post and absolutely something I need to do. Once I'm done with my like, 50 read alongs (okay, that's an exaggeration, but still), I really want to try to read some classics that I've had on my shelf for ages. Then I can read them slowly and not feel pressured to read quickly or hurry up and figure it out. I'm one of those people who said "Classics are not my thing" BUT I really do want to give a few a try because I think I'll appreciate them much more as an adult versus being forced to read them in high school and also over analyzing as part of a class. I just want to read and enjoy! :D

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    1. Yes! I actually like a lit of Southern Lit, but I hated my Southern Lit class while I was in grad school - it's just not something I like to study. When I got out of school, it was so fun just to read without the pressure of analyzing and re-analyzing every. single. word. Maggie Stiefvater did a great post on literary analysis from an author's perspective here: http://m-stiefvater.livejournal.com/250269.html.

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    2. *lot - whoops on the proofreading!

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  6. This is a great post, especially the whole idea of "never say never." I'm not a classics person at all, and the few that I've read on my own fall squarely into the "modern classics" category. Someday I do plan to venture farther into the past, but it's not today.

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  7. I used to really enjoy the classics in school, but find I have no motivation to read them on my own. You make some really good points-- especially that not every classic is for every person. I think this is something I need to keep in mind. I guess I have internalized that because something is a classic that it must/should have some sort of meaning/relevance to me, so I get really frustrated when I can't make it through them. They may just not be the right books for me, but I shouldn't write off ALL classics because Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice didn't do it for me. After all, Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time.

    I also like the idea of reading a classic alongside something else. I'm not very good at reading multiple books simultaneously (I tend to just binge read the more interesting one, ignoring the others), but maybe I could try the classics on audio.

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  8. Hannah, this is a GREAT article. So great. I want to RT it from the rooftops. I am so intimidated by classics. I'm scared I'm just not going to "get it" which is why I challenge myself EVERY YEAR to read some and I never ever do. I have a lot of room in my reading for the rest of the year, and I hope I can do this. I have bought so many in the past two years, hoping and planning to read one and just. Haven't. Your pro/con list is so right now, and I love the tips and even the graphic (so cute!) that you included. Thanks for writing this. You are so right. It is important to challenge yourself when it comes to your reading. I have to do this. I like to think of myself as pretty open-minded but the classics are just so important. They do build a good foundation and tell us a lot about current work that is out there.

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  9. What a wonderful post! I'm a Literature graduate, and have read my fair share of classics over the years... but before I started, I was adamant that I really didn't like them! Now that I have finished, some of the ones that I thought I would hate most are the ones that I LOVED (such as Germinal, or Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola), and the ones that I expected to enjoy (*cough* Jane Eyre *cough*) are the ones that I despised. Of course, having to read four or five classics each week meant that I couldn't sink my teeth into them quite as much as I would have liked to... but that's a sacrifice I had to make in order to experience ALL of them!

    I particularly liked this point:

    "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."

    When I started blogging, I was reluctant to tell my University friends! We had spent three years reading some of the most prestigious literature around, from Anna Karenina to Middlemarch, and I wasn't sure how they would react when I told them that, actually, I don't read Classics in my spare time, I like Children's/YA Fiction. They have been surprisingly supportive, and I am so thankful to have friends that accept that a reader is a reader, regardless of genre!

    I think one way of encouraging people who are anti-Classics to move out of their comfort zone is to introduce them to things that have been inspired by the classics e.g. Bridget Jones, Clueless, and other things from popular culture. But most importantly, is the need to have an open mind!

    Thank you for sharing this post: it was really interesting! I will be adding Italo Calvino's book to my Wishlist now! :)

    Inga @ Miss Inga Page.

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  10. I LOVE this post! While there are quite a few classics I adore (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby), there are some I really struggle with. Persuasion is taking me MONTHS to read so I'm taking it slow. I so wish I loved reading them as much as you because I agree, without them, books today would not be what they are. People stating they flat out WON'T read them, is so silly. Not all of them are dry or boring or school-required, ya know? Jane Eyre is so beautiful, and while very long in content, I blew through it because I just clicked and fell in love with it.

    I think everybody has the capacity to read and enjoy them, they just need to be open minded.

    Great post, Hannah!! I always love your opinions and your discussion posts! :)

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  11. Great post! I love classics! I admit the first few were quite hard to read, but you have to give yourself time to adjust to the language and the slow pace. People who don't like classics most of the time have developed an aversion to them in high school or try to read them as quick as a normal book, that won't work. I really love this quote: If you don't like reading, you haven't found the right book yet. It's very true with all books, but especially classics! Nice checklist, that will give me some new reading suggestions.

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  12. I really really love this post! I love it because I'm a classics lover and I actually grew up reading Classics over YA. I do think that classics tend to be appreciated with age. I was talking to a friend of mine about The Great Gatsby and we read it when we were in Grade 11. I liked it enough, but I feel like I wasn't mature enough to fully understand it. My friend said she read it again before she saw the movie and thought she understood it better now that we're 23 lol. I like how suggested reading some of the children's classics first rather than jumping into some of the other ones. My cousin who is five years younger than me was visiting and she was reading Anna Karenina and I was impressed! I've been intimidated to pick up that book, but I was glad that she was reading classics and got her some for her birthday :). I think The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte is one of the most easiest classics to read because the writing flows so smoothly. I also liked the fact that you said give classics time-I think that's what people find difficult because the writing style is so different. The build-ups are much slower and it takes a while for the story to suck you in. But when it does you don't want it to stop!

    Pride and Prejudice is one that I couldn't quite read when I was about 19 I think. But I'm determined to re-read it again because I feel like I'd have a totally different reading experience now.

    Once again great post!
    Cheers,
    Savindi

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  13. I love specific classics. Mostly 18th and 19th century, and mostly from England. Those were the types of lit classes I gravitated towards in college. I do think that it's a definite truth that there's a classic out there that each person can enjoy; it's just a matter of finding out what works for you. Thanks for including that chart! I'll definitely have to see what classics I should read from it.

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  14. I love classics and I get really sad when people dismiss them. I think it is sad when they're forced on young people in school because it causes them to NOT want to pick them up later in life. It's true that they're "harder" to read and that you have to work thru them, but good grief the payoff is worth it. And there will always be some you love more than others. For me, if the classic is daunting either in length or language or whatever, I go audio and get a friend. Just like with Anna K. It may take ages to get thru but you can't tell me ANYTHING after I've finished a book like that.

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  15. Oh my gosh, Hannah. This post. <3

    I see this attitude a lot in the blogosphere, where people are like "I hate all Classics" and I always have to bite my tongue, because it makes me so sad. It's like saying "All young adult books are trash" to me, which is so grossly unfair. And I know that for a lot of people they're only contact with classic lit is what was taught in high school, and I know personally that nothing makes me hate a book more than having it listed on a syllabus (though it's so great that for you, your teachers helped you love Classics!)

    So. Le sigh. I've been meaning to write a post on this for ages, but you beat me to it and said it better than I ever could. Thank YOU for posting this.

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  16. I can relate to this post so much! I am often torn just as you are -- I don't like to waste my time on books I don't enjoy, but also feel that sometimes it takes a little persistence to really "get" a classic book. There are classics I read for school I loved, and others I hated. I've been wanting to read more of them, but haven't found the time yet. I think it's most important for everyone to realize that not all classics can be lumped together -- there is so much variety out there that I think there is a classic out there for every reader if you want to seek one out -- classic Sci-fi, classic romance, classic horror, classic-almost-anything-you-can-think-of -- it's not just Steinbeck and Dickens, there's a whole world of books out there! :)

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  17. I really love this post Hannah! You did an incredible job making a case for the classics, and have me all inspired to read some more of them (especially since I have easy access to them for the most part). I haven't exactly said classics aren't for me; in fact, my childhood was spent reading loads of the children's classics! But as I've grown older, I've really started to push them aside in favor of YA books. Hopefully, this trend will change as I continue to get older! I really do think classics have something to offer readers, and hope to get to a lot of them soon.

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  18. YES YES YES. I am completely in love with this post, and all the points you made were perfect. Like I said in a previous comment, I've really been missing my classics lately, and this may have just pushed me over the edge. If I weren't starting Bout of Books in a couple days, I'd be picking up my copy of Anna Karenina right this second. I may pick out a shorter one from my shelves, though. Heaven knows I have copies of way too many classics I've yet to read!

    Also, that's a fantastic list you linked to! I've read and loved SO MANY of those books! Not so much love for a couple of them, but that's just like any category of books. I may bookmark this and come back to it. If there's anything I love more than lists and books, it's when the two are combined. :D

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  19. I really wish I read classics more. I know there's several I've read and loved, but there are even more that I haven't yet that I'm sure I'd enjoy. (For instance I've never read anything by Jane Austin!) But I think with book bloggers there's such a pressure to read as many books as possible and post reviews all the time, that devoting the time to a long classic seems impossible. At least if I want to have it read and reviewed within a week. I know it isn't a requirement, and know it's something I want to make work, but we'll see...

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