A quick poll of my Facebook friends reported that we f*cking hate classics. Of course, this, as most things, is on a scale, with 1 being mildly dislike to 10 being “I ritualistically burned my books and cast curses over Hemingway’s grave when I left Lit 101.”
We all can find ourselves somewhere on this scale, for a variety of reasons, but I’ve found the Big Five: We are too familiar with the story to bother reading the book, we think they are too confusing, schooling ruined them, we’re afraid of them, and finally, perhaps a little less recognized by us (let’s reflect!), that we don’t find them relatable.
Let’s pick this apart.
We Know the Story Already
Some classics have found their way into the cultural consciousness of Western folks. Let’s do a little pop quiz shall we? Out of these five titles, how many do you think you could bullshit your way through a term paper about without having read them?
- Pride and Prejudice
- Moby Dick
- Lord of the Flies
- Romeo and Juliet
Probably all of them right? Boom, senior lit class is in the bag. We have heard other people talk about these stories so much that we think we know what they’re about and how they end, and so what’s the point of reading them, then? The surprise is gone. We saw the BBC adaptation, the Leo DiCaprio film, the limited series of the modern spin on the story. Our society is overflowing with these stories and we’ve heard them secondhand so many times that we’ve lost interest. Compare the number of Jane Austen adaptations you’ve seen against how many of her books you’ve read yourself and it’s clear.
But what if I told you, they’re almost certainly always wrong.
Remember when you went to see the Twilight series or the Hunger Games or what-have-you after you devoured the books in high school and you sat in your seat and gaped at the screen the entire time, baffled by the sheer number of things that were cut or changed or just plain wrong? Now, imagine doing that to a five hundred page novel about revolutionary France. Yeah.
The thing is, movies are usually wrong. It’s not always their own fault, usually it’s just the nature of the beast. They can’t fit in everything. It just doesn’t work. You aren’t getting the whole story. Take an afternoon to read Frankenstein and see for yourself. I promise nothing will melt your brain faster than learning for yourself that the “monster” can actually talk and, frankly, has a good fucking point.
And, remember when your roommate told you you’d hate this TV series that she binged and then, years later when all the hype was gone, you watched it for yourself and resented her for your whole life because she lied to you??? Books can be like that. Sometimes, you’ve got to just find out for yourself. (Plus, it’s totally fun to ruin Frankenstein posts on tumblr with “Frankenstein was the doctor” because you’re In The Know.)
2. They’re Inaccessible.
Okay, I’m going let you have this one. I can’t count how many times I started and quit Les Miserables by Victor Hugo before I reached 50 pages. Dude is diverted easier than a kid in the toy aisle.
Language is often the biggest complaint for why people stay away from classics, especially the old stuff. Who has time to wade through Dickens’s sentences? I swear one in Oliver Twist was, like, a whole page long. Older generations of writers had a style that can be highly confusing and deterring for the modern reader, especially for those of us who grew up on Tweet character limits. Sometimes writers use words that are out of vogue or just plain wonky. I recommend a dictionary and patience. Maybe a sentence diagram? I jest. Just keep pushing. Don’t let the word “abtruse” (difficult to understand) win. When I taught reading, I told both children and adults to underline words they didn’t know and keep going. Look them up later, but don’t let your frustration or confusion with one word be the reason you put down a book.
Context is another biggie, especially with older novels. Jane Austen, for example, wrote drawing room scenes relying on the idea that her audience would understand all the social rules that governed the interactions of her characters, so while we might scratch our heads wondering why Catherine Moreland doesn’t just go introduce herself to people at the ball in Bath instead of sitting miserably with her annoying guardian, the contemporary audience would clearly understand that Catherine, knowing no one in the room who could make introductions for her, must be resigned to sitting out all the fun parts of the ball. Alexander Dumas doesn’t harp on the political atmosphere in France during the Count of Monte Cristo, so we might puzzle over what the big deal is with the letter that gets Edmond Dantes tossed into maximum security prison, but the contemporary French reader would see the connections between the letter and Napoleon’s second dance in Europe.
Try rolling with the story anyway. Ask questions, and if they bother you, find the answers, but trust that you’ll be able to get the meat of the story without knowing a thousand years of Chinese history or how to set up a tea table in Victorian London. Read introductions when you’ve finished, fish up some historical context, read a scholar’s review, but don’t give up! Ride it out, trust the story, and more often than not, you’ll survive the French Revolution.
3. I Hate Them Because They Made Me
Ah, yes. Let’s all reflect fondly on our high school memories shall we? Okay, now that we’ve remembered that we were bullied and stressed all for no reason, let’s talk about your high school English class. Now, we’re effectively bullied, stressed, and bored.
I don’t remember any reading from high school except the two books I hated. Silas Marner by George Eliot and Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton. Not only do they sound like the names of two bastards from New England who read their lame poetry in your college creative writing class when no one asked, but they were the most depressing and boring and unrelatable stories I’d ever had the misfortune to read when I was in high school. I hated them with a fiery passion. I was well out of college before I returned to one of them, and while I reread it and actually found it more meaningful and understandable as a twenty-something, I still vehemently believe that I had no business reading Ethan Frome as a sixteen year old.
For some reason, high school English curriculum crafters choose the most depressing, boring, and ridiculous novels for classes to read. Then, your teacher spends three periods waxing poetic about the broken gravy dish’s symbolism — it’s no fucking wonder kids hate reading in high school. They read shit. Maybe try to reread that book you hated in high school, but understand that the snobs who pick those books have never been high schoolers. Obviously.
Along comes college. You already are triggered by the word “classic” and then Lit 101 spends the whole semester talking about deconstructionism and the kid next to you won’t shut up about Derrida and you’re sitting in class nodding along like you get it and then you’re back in your dorm room holding your head in your hands and sobbing “so the curtains stand for what?” and then you never take a English class again. I was an English major. I’ve been there. Ask me how many words I can write about the scene in Vathek where Carathis curses her mom’s womb and spins around until she catches on fire. Oh, you don’t care? Cool, like, me either.
Your teachers mean well. They love books and they love people and they just want you to see why Viriginia Woolf matters so much, and she does, but they really can kill it for you. They prick holes in everything you love and you sit in class for an hour and half watching it sink. They want you to write thousands of words about one paragraph and consult dry and convoluted scholarly sources. They want you to prove you love something by slicing it into ribbons and then eating them without chewing. Remind me how we can say we love this book if we just put it through a verbal and mental shredder????
Here’s the thing. If you’re done with school, you don’t have to do that shit anymore. The room is just blue, now move on. If you like Jane Eyre, just like her. You don’t have to shred her. It’s chill. If you hate Hemingway, you can just go right on hating him. You aren’t being graded any more. You don’t have to validate your feelings about these books. You are free to like them or dislike them without citing three pieces of literary evidence. Congrats!
4. They Are More Threatening Than Death
I used to never read books longer than three hundred pages. They intimidated me. How could I possibly keep up? What if I forgot something? What if I got bored four hundred pages into a five hundred page book?
Classics can be real bricks. Like, use them to support a sagging foundation, prop them under the weight of all my adult responsibilities, use them to weigh the bag down at the bottom of the river (kidding, kind of). They aren’t the kind of books you carry around in your bag. They’re the kind where you need a table to rest them on while you read because the weight would break your legs.
One year, however, I set a challenge to read 15 books over 500 pages in one year. Here a few free tips.
- Write one sentence chapter summaries on post-its and stick them in the book so you can keep track of ideas and so you can refresh your memory if you take a long break from it.
- Take a long break from it.
- Quit reading boring ones.
- 478 counts as 500.
- Use online book study guides. Yes, Sparknotes will let you in even if you’re older than 16.
- Read smaller books.
Okay, so you have an action plan for a classic and you’re ready to dive in but then you feel it, dread. Big Dread. What if… You can hardly bear to say it. What if I don’t get it?
Remember when I just said that you aren’t being graded any more? Yeah. That. Is your mail carrier going to quiz you about the political themes in Animal Farm? Will your librarian refuse to let you have another Dickens novel if you can’t explain to her with details how the author was criticizing the workhouse? Are you uninvited to the next family dinner if you can’t explain to the dinner table how The Woman in White characterized women’s roles in Victorian England with points to rebuttal your sister’s contradictory argument?
Unless you have a really cool life, probably not. Someone will see that your reading something that’s considered a classic and will ask you if you like it, maybe, and nod based on whatever they know about the book based on point one, and then one day we will all die.
They Don’t Care About Me
Ah, finally a real reason to stay away from classics. Unless you’re a financially stable white male living in the Empire of Britain in the 1800s, probably you won’t see yourself represented by the traditional canon of classic literature. Odds are, most of us won’t even see ourselves as background characters in these novels. Sometimes, we can find our feelings echoed in a novel, but even then, sometimes the distance can be hard to breach.
I ask you to reconsider what classic novels are. We’re going to spend a lot of time doing this together here, and maybe we don’t have an answer today, but let’s take a second to think about it. Let’s have a ponder.
Were wealthy, intellectual, Western, white men the only people alive in 1860? Nope. Were they the only ones writing their stories? Also nope. Were they the only ones reflecting on human nature, life, and the pursuit of happiness? Hell nope.
There are other voices out there. They are sure as hell hard to find. They can often be fragmented and hidden. They are frequently covered up, discredited, and destroyed by the canon-makers who only wanted one type of voice in power. But they exist. Sappho, the Greek lesbian poet, is reaching out to us across the generations who told us she meant just gal pals. Phillis Wheatley, a black Romantic poet, is becoming more and more prominent in British literature courses where slavery and colonization are quieted in leiu of how Wordsworth felt about some yellow flowers. The likes of Zora Neale Hurston and Amy Tan are becoming as frequently seen on high school syllabi as Harper Lee.
We begin to see ourselves in classics when we change what that word means. It doesn’t mean a book older than 100 years. It doesn’t mean over five hundred pages. It doesn’t mean British. It doesn’t mean English-speaking. It doesn’t mean required reading. It doesn’t mean bland or boring.
It will take time to flesh out what classics mean instead of these things, but at the core, it means enduring and universal. It means that there is something for everyone to learn about the human heart or mind from it. Maybe that means some need to be knocked down a few pegs and others raised up higher. We’re going to figure it out together as we go, and find ourselves on the shelf, on the lists, on the syllabi.