How to Read a “Classic”

Mark Twain famously said that a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. As an English teacher, I’ve been given sort of a front row seat to Mr. Twain’s assessment being played out in real life. Most of my students (and, come to that, most people I know) want to be “well-read,” whatever it is, exactly, that means. They cannot, however, seem to put down their copies of The Hunger Games long enough to manage the task. And listen, I’m not cruel; I want people to have fun with what they read (even if it’s assigned reading), but there’s no way to get from point A to point B on the well-read road map without, you know, actually reading a wide range of books, including a fair share of so-called classics. So how to accomplish the daunting task of tackling a representative sampling of the canon? My advice, in just a few easy to follow guidelines:

The typical response to the words “Classic Literature.” That girl in the bottom right just finished reading this post.

1. Choose Wisely

The first step is – as is often the case – the most important. Not all classics are created equally, and there’s no point in setting off on a fool’s errand, indiscriminately grabbing everything off that rack Barnes & Noble keeps next to the information kiosk and trying to plow through the pile. Your taste in books applies just as much to the ancient as to the brand new, so you’ll be best served by sticking to it. If you love reading mysteries, for example, reach for Doyle instead of Dickens. Romance? Austen or the Brontes rather than Twain. In the same way that you wouldn’t go to the movies and buy a ticket without knowing anything about the movie playing, you shouldn’t buy a book – especially a classic that could present other challenges – without conducting a little research first. This means more than just skimming the back of the book, although that’s a start. Go on, set up an account, and check out what others have to say. You can track how other users’ tastes compare to yours and see how those people have rated the classic you’re interested in. A little due diligence up front will save you a headache later, and, more importantly, it could stop you from writing off all classics because of your incompatibility with just a few.

2. Invest in a Worthy Edition

How many of us own mass-market copies of classics that we found in the remainder bucket at our local bookstore, cheap editions printed on paper that smudges and crinkles no matter how hard we try to handle them delicately? And how many of those editions end up languishing on our bookshelves, nice to look at, but not exactly calling to us to rescue them from permanent exile and add them to the bedside pile? I once got a Wordsworth Classics copy of A Tale of Two Cities for two dollars at a tiny bookstore in Gatlinburg when I was 17. I still haven’t read it. The type is crammed onto margin-less pages, the cover is unattractive, and the binding makes it awkward to even hold the book open without destroying the spine. Shallow though it may seem, the better a book looks and feels, the more it will call to us from the shelf. The same is true of anything, though. Those possessions that we have invested much into (think: new car, or even a new golf club, or, if you’re Curtis, a new kayak), we are more likely to value. The more value we place on these things, the more we will use them and treat them well. In the case of books, even if you buy, say, a used copy of Anna Karenina at Half-Price Books for $4.99  (so the actual investment isn’t enormous), but you purchase a really nice edition (mine’s the Pevear and Volokonsky-translated edition with the lilacs on the cover and the the frayed pages), the perceived investment is such that it still demands that much more forcefully to be read.

3. Read with a Pencil in Your Hand

Most of what we mean when we say that classics are “difficult” or “challenging” has to do with their language. Whether it’s Shakespeare, Milton, or something more contemporary (but at times just as linguistically or stylistically incomprehensible) like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, the shifts in the way we read, think, and speak to each other in even the past 70 years can make these works seem impenetrable. Part of what aids that feeling, though, is the passive approach we take to most novels. Since, when we read most of our contemporary favorites, the language doesn’t give us the same headaches as a text from the 18th century and we understand what is going on, plot-wise, we treat them like television shows or movies, allowing the author to convey the story and not pausing to dig beneath the surface. Nothing will kill the experience of reading a classic like taking this passive approach. The language won’t allow us to get seamlessly immersed, for one thing, and for another, the social and political contexts of many classics make what’s actually happening far less clear than it would have been for it’s initial audience. The solution? Read actively. Underline passages, write questions in the margins (even if you just put a big question mark or write “huh?”, it’ll pay off), circle words you don’t know or that don’t seem to mean the same thing in the book as they do in your world. If this sounds suspiciously like the kind of advice of an English teacher, I apologize for nothing. It’s not homework, because you’re only accountable to yourself. When you finish a chapter, you can hop on Google and in ten minutes know a whole lot more about the world in which your novel takes place and gain a stronger sense of ownership over your reading experience than if you just sit back and expect the goods to be painlessly delivered to you. I get the temptation to say, “I’m just going to stick to my John Grisham because it’s so much less work.” The only response I can give is that different kinds of books demand different kinds of attention. A Time to Kill is like driving an automatic, Paradise Lost is like driving a 1964 Mustang. Sure, it’s harder to drive with a manual transmission and no power steering, but it’s not without its own impossible-to-replicate virtues.

4. SparkNotes

Be honest: the first thing you thought of when you read that heading was cheating. Consider yourself absolved. For years, SparkNotes (and its cousin, Cliffsnotes) were regarded as a kind of get-out-of-jail-cheap card for students who couldn’t be bothered with the assigned reading in school, and so they knocked out a few chapter summaries, scanned the section on prominent themes, got an 84% on the reading quiz, and lived to fight another day. But when dealing with a particularly challenging text, there is much to recommend these sites and other resources like them, as long as they serve as a companion to the book you’re reading (their original intent) rather than a substitute. Since most of us no longer have to take reading quizzes, we can shed the stigma. Consider Shakespeare, for example. Say you’ve decided that The Bard finally warrants the attention you couldn’t be bothered to give him when you were in school, and picked up a copy of Macbeth. Before reading each act (or scene, even), I would go on SparkNotes and read a summary of the act, just so that I know generally what to expect before I wade into all that iambic pentameter, where otherwise I’m going to be so focused on decoding the language that the plot won’t even register. If this feels like you’re spoiling the endings, I’m sorry, but it will make your reading experience way more enjoyable and fruitful. You can do the same thing with any work whose language or style is giving you headaches (I nominate Faulkner, Pynchon, some of Cormac McCarthy, and a lot of Don DeLillo). You’ll also benefit from checking out a few of the major motifs and themes prior to reading because it provides you a helpful lens through which to see what you read and, again, increases the sense of ownership over your reading experience.

5. Book Clubs

Whether it’s a club built around books and bourbon, an online club through LibraryThing or GoodReads, or just a good old-fashioned rotation house-gathering, reading is always improved through communal experience. Much of what makes books so great is, after all, discussing them with friends. You can find people who share what you loved, hated, were frustrated by, or simply didn’t understand in these vaunted novels. Even if you don’t love the classic you picked, reading through them with people you know will unquestionably elevate the experience.

Everyone simply cannot love every book, even the ones considered “Great” by much of the populace. I’ve come to terms with that. But I can’t come to terms with the constant dismissal of truly fantastic works simply because they’ve acquired that most burdensome of descriptors. So go ahead, think of that classic you’ve always wanted to say you’ve read but never actually conquered (remember to choose wisely) and get to it.

Other Resources

Just a couple of things: (1) If you haven’t checked out Yale’s Open Courses (real lectures, given by Yale professors, for free), then you are missing out on an unparalleled (literally) resource. And (2) if you’re thinking of taking on that most titanic of all classics, Ulysses, don’t make a move before subscribing to Frank Delaney’s fantastic Re:Joyce podcast, which helps you dive into the sometimes unfathomable depths of Joyce’s opus.

Like this post? Check out some of TTAF’s other book-related scribblings: Nine Books You Should Have Read as a Child, Twelve Books (and an Author) That Every Man Must Read, Four Reasons You Should Be Reading Graham Greene, Eleven (Really) Long Novels Worth Your While, and Why Men Need Literature

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9 Comments on “How to Read a “Classic””

  1. July 31, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    Reblogged this on Aardvarkian Tales and commented:
    I need to locate a decent copy of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’.

  2. July 31, 2012 at 7:43 pm #

    #1 is good advice. I tried two classics at once – Bleak House and Moby Dick. Liked Bleak House, though it took me a long time to finish. Liked Moby Dick at times, too, but never finished. I just do not care enough about whaling to push through.

    • joshacorman
      July 31, 2012 at 9:50 pm #

      I recently finished Moby Dick and my view is very much in line with yours: Moments of transcendence between largely uninteresting stretches. A friend of mine recently explained that he thought Melville was using the Cetalogical chapters to grow the Sperm Whale into a true Leviathan that cannot be minimized by new scientific discovery and that stands as being of unique power. That all makes sense, and perhaps lends heft to the novel’s thematic weight, but it just didn’t pull me in after the first hundred pages.

  3. joshacorman
    July 31, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

    James, I have a Penguin classics edition of ‘The Count,’ that worked well. I found it to be pretty accessible considering (a) that it’s translated and (b) that it was written in 1844. Good luck with it!


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