Reading the classics is hard

Posted: April 24, 2013 in Books & Reading
Tags: , , , , , , ,

I always feel kind of bad thinking this. I mean, I’m an avid reader, AND I’m a writer. Shouldn’t I be completely in love with the classics? It’s like an art history student going up to a painting by Michelangelo and saying, “Meh.”

Some people are going to look at you funny.

But I can’t help it! There are a few “classics” I do enjoy. 1984 is one of my all-time favorite books. I love Lord of the Flies. But beyond that? There are maybe only a few others.

1984 George OrwellIf you read my post about audiobooks on Monday, you’ll know I’ve been using them to listen to the classics because it’s a lot easier for me to get through them that way. I’ve read both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  and Through the Looking Glass, and I’m just about done with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

And you know what? I didn’t really like them.

Okay, so they’re imaginative, and they’re inspiring and they’ve launched TV shows and movies and toys and a million other things. But I found the writing to be juvenile and the descriptions, in a lot of cases, to be pointless.

Now, this isn’t totally the fault of the author. And this is sort of the point I want to drive home. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was written in 1865. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published in 1900. These times are a world away from ours. Certain things were expected in stories – things that would be looked down upon by today’s standards. So many descriptions go on for pages and pages and pages. Nowadays? That’d land your MS in the circular file.

So, okay. The classics are hard to relate to. The writing is not the same as we’d expect if we were to pick up a contemporary novel. But what about the story? Wouldn’t that be its saving grace?

Yes, I think that’s where a classic is saved. If you can get through all the junk and read for the meaning of the story, that’s where the love for the novel comes into play. Let’s face it, if you actually enjoy reading A Tale of Two Cities, you might be a bit of a masochist. The writing is so roundabout, so dragged out, that I found myself able to get through only a few pages at a time. (This was before I discovered the joy of audiobooks, which probably would’ve brought this story more to life than my imagination was able to.)

But once you read the words and reflect back on the story, the love for the character arc and journey the characters went on becomes apparent. It’s only after the fact that the story becomes what we treasure. While we’re reading it? It’s torture. At least, that’s how I feel.

And sometimes I think people love the classics just because they’re classics. And I don’t get that. Maybe that’s why I feel so guilty when I say I have a hard time getting through them – shouldn’t I love them all if reading and writing are such a big part of my life?

Maybe. But maybe not. I think everyone should read the classics and try to understand them. But you don’t have to like them. A like for those stories, just like any other story, is subjective. And it isn’t required. Just because you don’t like Macbeth doesn’t mean you haven’t read it and doesn’t mean you don’t understand it. It just means you didn’t like it. Plain and simple.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m telling myself to ease the guilt.

What do you guys think? Are you advocates of the classics, or do you have trouble with them too? Are there any that you absolutely love? Are there any that you feel guilty about not liking?

  1. There are way too many ‘classics’ to worry about how many you have or haven’t read. I have pretty eclectic taste so have ended up reading a fair few – but I don’t have time for reading snobs who won’t read anything else. We all like what we like. I can’t stand Shakespeare. I don’t like a lot of Dickens (although I love Tale of Two Cities). You put a pic of Orwell up there… he’s a pretty great writer btw!

    • Karen Rought says:

      I think you’re absolutely right. Just like with contemporary novels, everyone has their own preferences. I don’t mind Shakespeare so much, but Dickens does tend to bore me. I love George Orwell, though! As I said, 1984 is definitely one of my favorites. It was one of the books in school I didn’t feel like I had to force myself to read. I felt the same way about Lord of the Flies too.

  2. Julie Glover says:

    I made myself read War and Peace, and honestly, I want all of those hours back. The writing was good, but the story was so massive and disorganized that I ended up using a flow chart to keep up with the characters. That said, I loved Anna Karenina by the same author, Tolstoy.

    Classics run the range, and you definitely have to keep in mind that novel rules were different then, but there are many I adore. Don Quixote was brilliant; Crime and Punishment was bone-chilling; Jane Austen books are delightful; Jane Eyre is one of my favorites; and you can’t go wrong reading Dracula or Frankenstein some eerie night. But heaven help me if I am ever required to read James Fenimore Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, or John Steinbeck ever again. Classic schmassic, not my thing.

    Great post!

    • Karen Rought says:

      It’s so funny how we can all read the same thing and feel so different about it, isn’t it? I quite enjoy Steinbeck – or at least I liked Of Mice and Men.

      I definitely need to read more though! I feel like I should, just to see how what sorts of classics I’m more attracted to.

  3. Jess Witkins says:

    I love that you’re using audio books to enjoy the classics. I do think that’s the best way to do it. Classics, like any other book, are hit or miss with the reader if they’re honest. Everyone likes different things. I see Julie love Jane Eyre, and you know what, I can’t stand it! LOL. What turned me off? Three pages that described a pastry on a plate and then SHE DIDN’T EVEN EAT IT!!! Don’t do that to me!!! Eat the damn pastry! But, I love Wuthering Heights and the torrid affair of Heathcliffe and Cathy, but my sister dislikes that one and loves Jane Eyre. Fine, she can have Mr. Rochester and his burnt up eyebrows for all I care! Good riddance!

  4. Yeah – just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily like it. My ‘classics’ liking was stunted at high school by an English teacher who was an assassin of any interest in literature (and everything else English-related). There was a silver lining – I ended up being sent, by my parents, to writing classes in the local polytechnic to make up the gap…Can’t complain. 🙂

    But I never had any interest in the classics for years afterwards. My knowledge of Wuthering Heights came from the Kate Bush song – I mean, honestly, how sad is that?

  5. Azevedo says:

    I think like anything out of our spectrum, reading classics takes some work. I couldn’t enjoy old movies for example, because I was raised on movies with bright colours, seamless editing,appealing story arcs, etc. I watched a lot of old movies and I eventually grew used to them and, more than that, began to enjoy them as much or even more than recent movies.
    There’s a point about higher pleasures that this video can tell better than I could, if you wan’t to watch
    Basically, I believe if you read enough classics, you will eventually prefer them because of the bigger and broader satisfaction they entail. That said, of course that you don’t need to enjoy them all, but if a book gains that status, it’s usually through years and years of studying and acclamation from scholars, and if they’re not enjoyable for a particular individual, you can certainly find something of value in them.
    And yeah, A Tale of Two Cities was a bore! 🙂

    • Karen Rought says:

      Classics – both in literature and film – definitely take some getting used to. Those authors wrote for a different audience. The generations of today are programmed for a different kind of reading and viewing. That’s neither a good or a bad thing; it just means it takes a little extra work to get through the classics and appreciate them. There are some I definitely enjoyed, like War of the Worlds and Journey to the Center of the Earth, but I’m struggling with Moby Dick right now. It’s rough, but I want to finish it, because sometimes there are nuggets of gold amongst all the dirt.

      But that’s just me! I’m sure Moby Dick is someone’s favorite story. To each his own!

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