Tuesday, August 31, 2010

On Reading Classics

Over the years I have noticed that there tend to be two camps of readers. Those who enjoy books deemed "classics" and those who don't. This post is addressed to the latter.

It's usually pretty obvious which camp a reader falls into, but if you're uncertain you might use these factors to help you determine. When you're holding a book in your hand that has been listed as a classic do you have feelings of fear and trepidation? Do you stifle a yawn and have flickering memories of falling asleep in English class? If you answer yes to either question then it's very likely you fall in to the camp of those who don't enjoy classics. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Over the years I have had an interesting relationship with classics. I've always had a fear of the "ancient classics" (i.e. Odyssey, Iliad, etc.) something I hope to one day overcome. As a teenager I learned to enjoy William Shakespeare, but was bored to tears by Charles Dickens. But as an adult I have found my reading tastes very broad and acclectic. I now enjoy everything from the occasional light and fluffy chic-lit to the tome like classic published over 200 years ago. So how did I reach this point? First, I began by selecting a more popular classic (i.e. one of Jane Austen's novels) and I started reading and persisted until the end. It often helped to watch a film adaptation of the book either before or after reading the book. Soon I discovered that the more I read the more I was starting to enjoy these types of books. Another thing that helped was my being involved in a book club dedicated to the classics. The ladies in this club have helped challenge and expand my reading tastes. They were the ones who helped me over the hurdle of disliking Dickens to adding some of his novels to my list of "all-time favorite reads".

So how does one overcome the feeling of fear or boredom? Here are some suggestions:

1. Start off with a classic that is well-known or been adapted to the screen (i.e. Jane Austen is a good place to begin). Or you might consider a classic that is more recent. (Contrary to some belief the term "classic" doesn't just mean books written pre-1800. The term has been expanded to include novels published as late as the early 20th century, i.e. Gone With the Wind, The Invisible Man, To Kill Mockingbird, etc.) Another good idea is to ask other readers what their favorite classics are.

2. Join a book club or find some readers who are likewise interested in reading classics. The more the merrier. When you have someone to discuss a book with you are more likely to enjoy it. If you don't have access to a book club or fellow reader who focus on classics then at the very least check out 5 Minutes for Books Classics Club. It's a carnival held each quarter on the 5th Tuesday of the month. Today is the third quarter posting and a great place to hear what other bloggers have to say about recent classics they've read.

3. Take notes. Jot down quotes you like or questions you have. If you come upon a word you don't know or a phrase you don't understand either stop and look it up or write it down to look up the next chance you get.

4. As I mentioned above film adaptations can be helpful. Although they aren't always faithful to the book they do give the reader a chance to see the entire story put together. When I was 15 I tried to read Pride and Prejudice but really struggled. After watching the A&E adaptation I was able to put together the settings with the people with the plot and the dialogue and it all started to make sense. When I went back and started reading the novel it made sense and turned out to be a life-long favorite of mine.

5. Don't give up. Just because you pick up a classic and don't enjoy it, don't give up on the idea of reading classics. Some authors are harder to read than others. Some stories deemed classics ARE boring. If you aren't engaged within the first 50-100 pages put the book down and try something else. There's nothing more likely to kill a readers interest in a classic than to push through 800 pages of a book they just don't like.

Once you've read your classic head back over to 5 Minutes for Books and link up your review. The next Classics carnival will be held Thursday, November 29, 2010.

In closing I want to quote Canadian author Robert Davies who once said:

"Do not suppose, however, that I intend to urge a diet of classics on anybody. I have seen such diets at work. I have known people who have actually read all, or almost all, the guaranteed Hundred Best Books. God save us from reading nothing but the best."
Like Davies, I don't urge you to read ONLY classics. Like anything in life too much of a good thing can be bad. Instead I encourage you to broaden your reading diet. Mix it up. Don't give up on the lighter works, but don't read only fluff. Add in some non-fiction and biographies, a book of poetry, and a handful of classics. But whatever you read -- read because you know it's enjoyable and because you'll be a better person for it.

Happy Reading!


The Campbells said...

Another hint is to take an author that is considered classic (EG: Jane Austen) and read their later works, vs. their first works. Oftentimes their story-telling has matured and their "flavor" is much more rich in their later works, I know this is especially true of Austen, P&P (one of her first books) is much harder to really "get" unless you've either seen a good adaptation or have read a later work like Persuasion and have picked up the nuances/writing style.

P. Smith said...

You know Homer's Odyssey wasn't something I wanted to read until I saw the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? by the Coen Brothers. If you read the book and watch the movie they're the same story line. Most people don't know that the Coen Bros have a film adapted from a book before No Country for Old Men. Not only is O Brother Where Art Thou? a funny film, it will make reading the Odyssey a quick read because you'll remember who the Cyclopse is and the Sirens etc in the film.