On reading and rereading the classics

I have mixed feelings about “the classics.” I love some of them, hate others. A few of them (Hemingway, I’m looking at you) I’ve put down and realized I had no idea what they were really about. I profess to love books, so I feel somewhat obligated to not only read but remember classic books clearly enough to bring them up in conversation and thus contribute to the impression that I am well-read. That’s why people read classics, right? Oh. We’re not supposed to say that out loud?

When I was a kid (I am now an old woman at 22), all I did was read. I plowed through the Redwall books faster than Brian Jacques could publish them. I devoured more than 50 of the Thoroughbred series. The Boxcar Children, Pony Pals, and the Saddle Club were no match for my voracious reading appetite. I read a lot, but the closest I came to a classic was Black Beauty. I like animals, okay?

It wasn’t until high school that I realized the value of a book was judged by something other than whether or not I personally liked it. Even though I had put the Pony Pals behind me, I never picked up something like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca until it was part of my ninth grade curriculum. I had never analyzed a book or considered what it made me feel or why; I just put it down and moved on to the next one. I did the same thing with the first couple in high school but, after a few classes spent pulling and picking and dissecting, I realized that these books had a lot written between the lines. I realized that my way of reading—wolfing down pages like this was some kind of pie-eating contest—wasn’t doing me any favors.

I read my fair share of the usual suspects for class; Animal Farm, A Farewell to Arms, To Kill a Mockingbird, so on and so forth. However, as I developed a reputation for being something of a writer, something of an English person, I became uncomfortably aware of the holes in my reading experience. I started to cringe whenever anyone asked “Have you read…?” because what if I hadn’t and what if I should have?

With my newly-acquired identity as an English person at stake, I went to the musty section of the library and tried to pick out the classiest classical classics. I read Anna Karenina, The Sun Also Rises, Jane Eyre, The Age of Innocence, and Beowulf on my own. As I’ve already implied, I was way out of my depth.

Without my teachers and their worksheets and pointed questions, I couldn’t grasp what I was reading. I couldn’t pick out the themes or recognize the character arcs or do any of the other things we English people ought to be able to do. I couldn’t read between the lines by myself.

I like to think I’ve made some progress in that area. I’m pretty sure I can get a handle on what most authors are trying to say. I can pick up some bits and pieces between the lines on my own, so I’ve been thinking I should revisit some of those classy classical classics. But I’m a little nervous. What if The Sun Also Rises still seems to be about drinking, smoking, watching bullfights and very little else? What if Anna Karenina is still the inexplicable combination of farming methods and affairs that don’t seem to include sex? Is there something wrong with me? Am I not literary enough? Am I a fraud?

This has not been the case with all classics. The Scarlet Letter was an experience that helped make me the person I am, that shaped my beliefs and the way I see the world. The themes of Lord of the Flies are present in my own work, albeit in trace amounts. I’ve taken ideas and styles from others even if I didn’t appreciate them as a whole.

So, what’s the verdict? What has been your experience with the classics? Did you love them? Did you hate them? Have you turned out all right without them? Am I just too dumb to “get” them?

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6 comments on “On reading and rereading the classics

  1. BK Vedna says:

    Hi, I am “an old woman at 22” too! And I think that you have expressed perfectly legitimate questionings about your reading. I am a bookworm too. Sheesh, my parents own a bookstore, so…you can imagine.:-)
    I think classics have an aura of their own. I have been through Harper Lee, Hardy, Bronte, Eliot, Wilde, Bolt, Hartley and many others, and my appetite has not been satisfied yet. Unfortunately I do not have literary people in my family and friends are not very much at ease talking about classics (if you see what I mean), so I do not get much of a chance of express my feelings about a book, unless its with my students.

    Great post.

    • Carly says:

      I think saying they have an “aura of their own” sums it up really well. Classics do have a wonderful mystique about them, and I think that’s what added to the pressure of reading them for me. I wanted to have a magical reading experience and I didn’t know it would require some effort on my part. Now that I know, I think I ought to try again. Do you have any particular favorites?

      • BK Vedna says:

        Not that I am a feminist, but so far, I have read three authors’ books twice (which means that I really liked them). They are Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’, George Eliot’s ‘Silas Marner’ and ‘Middlemarch’, and Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’. They made me laugh, cry, and identify with them; and they also taught me a better way to accept the lessons of life.

        I believe reading becomes more pleasurable when you are able to share your fantastic reading experience with someone.

  2. I read most of the classics during my university days because I had to. Some of them I enjoyed like The Mill on the Floss, Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the D’Urbevilles, and others I could not finish like Vanity Fair and Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Now that I’m ‘older’ (ehem 30+) I find that I now enjoy re-reading some of these older works and from time to time I still try to include one that I haven’t read. Next on the list for me is Lolita….

    • Carly says:

      Of all of those, I’ve only started one (Pride and Prejudice) and never finished it. Frankly, I’m not even sure how many of those titles my library has (I live in the absolute boonies) but Heart of Darkness and Lolita are both really high on my to-read list. Inter-library loan here I come!

  3. b.h.quinn says:

    I have a stack of classics that I plan on (eventually) reading, but haven’t quite gotten around to yet. To be honest, I didn’t even read the required books for school (I was really good at faking it), only skimming them sometimes even though I was the “English person” of the school.

    The one book that I was *constantly* asked if I’d read was Lord of the Rings because I’m a genre person. Eventually I read it (I love the movies), and I really didn’t like it. Now I’m scared to read anything else people think I’d love! I worked at a Borders and all of my friends from there are readers, too, so I’m always getting recommendations and “Have you read…?” questions.

    A good thing to do — something I’ve found to be much easier to handle — is to read the “Must Read” classic short stories and poetry. They’re both ways of grasping themes and classical styles in a shorter time period with less extraneous plotlines to get in the way. (And if you have an e-reader or a smart phone, you can download many of the public-domain classics off of Gutenberg Project).

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