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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 spectrum 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.
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 in the middle of Barnes & Noble and trying to plow through it. Your taste in books applies just as much to ancient books as to 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 Goodreads.com, 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 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 the page, leaving no real margins, 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 alluring it is. 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 Curt, 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 (and 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 to be read that much more forcefully.
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 our contemporary favorites, the language doesn’t give us the same headaches as a text from the 18th century and we understand on the literal level 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 would anyone say it’s worse?
Be honest: the first thing you thought of when you read that heading was cheating. Consider yourself absolved. For years, SparkNotes (and their 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, and classics probably even more so. 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.
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 nearly 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