My take on the Classics.
Soon after determining to be a writer – or at least one who writes seriously – I made a list of the necessary requirements. The standards I’d have to live up to so I could confidently say I was on the path and slinging words with the best of them. I’d have to write over a thousand words a day, read two thousand pages a month, edit extensively, finish and send out all of my stories, study the art and craft of fiction any way I could…. And read the classics. Yeah, you know – The Classics. Just all those famous books you hear smart people talking about, like Shakespeare and Dickens and all the rest. What? It can’t be that hard, can it?
After fighting my way through Crime and Punishment, The Iliad, Ulysses, and God knows how many other dense (but let’s not forget, world changing) novels, I realised I was on a fool’s errand. Don Quixote is a thousand pages long, and it’s only one of hundreds of books that could be considered ‘Classics’. I found myself climbing endless walls like a Navy Seal at boot camp, only mine were made of words instead of bricks – though they were no less taxing.
I wasn’t enjoying myself. I wasn’t learning much, either. I wanted to learn. That was, after all, the whole point. I wanted to soak in the transcendent words of these revered authors, discover the timeless truths and human emotions they evoked. In some cases, I succeeded: Steinbeck, Hemingway, Dickens, Vonnegut. But in too many others, I fought to consume the prose, struggling to discover whatever lessons and meaning might be concealed within. It was like forcing dry chicken down my throat. At the time, I told people how much I enjoyed Lovecraft. But the truth is? I thought ‘In the Mountains of Madness’ sucked. I know at the time he wrote it, it was special. But reading it objectively from my modern day perspective, it just wasn’t good. It’s like watching a famous movie from the 1960s and saying it’s corny. Of course it is. Corny is something that happens when you make something so good that it gets copied to the point of nausea and cringing. Like clichés. The first guy who wrote the words: ‘He fought like a lion’ was way ahead of his time.
But the point is, I was forcing myself to read things I wasn’t enjoying and wasn’t learning anything from just because I thought I should. It wasn’t a good investment. I know you’re supposed to love the classics. You’re supposed to be literature educated, and appreciate what they did and why and how. But that’s bullshit.
Listen. A book is a big investment in your time and concentration. It better do at least one of two things very well, or it isn’t worth either: 1. Entertain you 2. Inform you
That’s it. These are the only purposes books serve. If you’re not entertained, and you’re not learning, then give it up.
In light of this, I developed a system for reading classics that both keeps me from getting bogged down in swamps of words I don’t have an interest in reading and educates me at the same time.
When I read a ‘Classic’ book, I have the following rules:
- Read 100 pages. If a book doesn’t interest you in the first hundred pages, it never will, classic or not.
- If it interests you enough to keep reading, finish it. If not, stop. Life is too short to read things you don’t like, and there are more classics than you could get through even if you only commit yourself to a hundred pages of each – or fifty for that matter.
- If you do stop reading, skip to the last ten pages and read them. Then go to the Wikipedia page or an equivalent and find out everything you can about it. Find out why it became a classic in the first place. Who was the author? What was going on in his or her life and in the world at the time? Why did he write the book? Why did it have such a great affect on society and become a classic?
That’s it. If you’ve read 100 pages of a book, then you know the style, tone, and voice of the author, and you know the direction and pace and form of the book. Combined with the knowledge about the author, the context of the time, and the reasons for the books enduring success, you have a pretty holistic and complete idea of whatever book you chose. You could probably achieve the same reading only fifty pages, even.
So that’s what I do. Occasionally I come across a classic novel I like or even love, and read it all the way through and study it and marvel at it.
Often, though, reading a classic feels like chewing dried fish. It’s probably good for you, but is it really worth it?
That said, I’ve also discovered some Earth shatteringly good books through my determination to read classics: The Old Man and the Sea, for example; Dracula, The Grapes of Wrath, and too many others to list here. So don’t dismiss the daunting classic – reach out and taste, and whether or not you like what you find, recognize that there is value there independent of you. If it isn’t your style, leave if and try something new. But I can guarantee you’ll learn something, and that the ones you don’t toss aside, yawning, just might change your life.