I have always found it difficult to engage with the classics. The hardest part for me is the lack of plot, or the obfuscation of the plot within long-winded discussions of only slightly related and only semi-interesting topics (I’m looking at you, Umberto Eco – how did you make medieval religious history so completely boring?!?!) I still read them – mostly so that I can say I have.
While there are certainly some classics I have loved, for the most part I avoid them. I associate classics with boredom – they take too long to read because of the overcomplicated vocabulary from a past age. I associate classics with confusion – too often, I don’t understand why said book is considered a classic and then spend days feeling stupid. I associate classics with homework – with most classics I read, I duck over to SparkNotes to try and get head around it. That kind of defeats the purpose though – aren’t the classics meant to make me feel something? Isn’t that why they have such universal appeal? What am I missing?
In the past month I have struggled through Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 – it took me six days (an eon for me!) and quite a few trips to SparkNotes to make sense of it! While in the end I did enjoy the book and its themes, it was so laborious getting through it that I almost gave up a few times!
I am currently reading Great Expectations, which I like as a story – loved the summary I read before I started in an attempt to gee myself up for the book itself, but again the reading is laborious! I am reading with Post-It notes beside me to mark those universally profound tidbits Dickens must surely have come up with. So far I have only one in place (and I only have 75 pages left!):
So, throughout life, our worst weaknesses and meannesses
are usually committed for the sake of people we most despise.
Brilliant quote – but I had to get through 206 pages to find it!
I have these problems again and again and again. Without a proper plot, the whole book just becomes a mumble-jumble of long-winded nothings.
There are a few classics which I do have a certain fondness for:
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen was the book which helped me through that English term on satire. It was much more obvious than Lord of the Flies which was our actual text…..
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence – intrigued by this ‘banned book’, I first discovered erotica here; and nothing has ever lived up to this original.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte – there is something about those wild moors and that scene where Heathcliff hugs Cathy’s corpse which just captivated my attention. On a side note, Jane Eyre was one of the most tedious reads in the world – probably forty pages of plot per one hundred pages of religious talk.)
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf – the stream of consciousness became one of my favourite literary techniques because of this book; however, I have struggled to even get past the first pages of her other stories!
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – perfection. And also, I believe, one of the original young adult stories. With Scout’s age, and the subtle hints rather than overt discussion of abuse, rape and racism, today it might even have been marketed as a young adult novel. (I am writing an article on this for uni, hence the slightly random thought here!)
It’s funny – I intended this blog post to be a tirade against the inaccessibility of classics. However, the more I think about it, the more classics I realise I have truly enjoyed. I just have to steer well clear of them when I want to read quickly!
Do you ever have problems with the classics? Do you feel silly trying to analyse them? Does it ruin or enhance your reading experience? And which are the books that have stuck with you??