Put your hand on your heart and answer honestly, how many classic stories have you ever read just because you wanted to? … If you’re anything like me the answer will be under five.
Almost every classic novel or story I’ve read has been at the hand of a reading list, I’ve rarely ever picked one up to read for the sake of reading. Now don’t get me wrong, there are some excellent classics out there and some that are even easy to read (‘Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Persuasion’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ …) but in my experience, whether I’ve found them worthwhile or not, reading classic novels can be a slog.
Let’s look at the facts:
– Generally they are very long
– Generally they are very wordy using archaic language of their time
– Generally the plot moves very slowly (have you ever tried to read ‘Robinson Crusoe’?)
And by the time you come to modernism in the early 20th Century, the plots are so damn incomprehensible that you’re no closer to understanding them at the end than you were at the beginning- (I mean ‘Ulysses’ was written to be difficult to read).
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big bibliophile and I think teaching literature to the next generation (and a lot of the current one) is vital. But more than that, I enjoy reading and therefore I want to read books I enjoy and that can exclude a lot of classics. So what qualifies as a classic? Why do we read them if they’re difficult?
According to Wikipedia, a classic book is “a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, either through an imprimatur such as being listed in any of the Western canons or through a reader’s own personal opinion.” Pretty vague, right? By definition, the very basis of a classic novel is completely subjective. (And any lit student knows what a pain in the bum subjectivity is).
For me classic literature falls into three columns: easy books I enjoyed, difficult books I could appreciate and difficult books that I didn’t appreciate. In column one, let’s take Austen, I enjoyed ‘Persuasion’ because it was easy and I can appreciate it’s importance lies in the way it documents social norms of Austen’s time… but let’s call a spade a spade, if Austen were writing now she’d be a successful chick lit author. Then in column two there’s Dickens, I can appreciate ‘Great Expectations’ and I’m glad I read it, but I enjoyed it more after I’d read the final page. Finally in column three, there’s ‘Caleb Williams’ by Godwin, the most boring book I’ve ever read and even after a lecture I fail to see why it’s important.
So here’s my question, do you enjoy classics or do you read them because they’re worthwhile? Which ones did you enjoy? Which did you think were worthwhile? And which would you banish to room 101 for being schoolroom torture?