Most of us have books in our to-read lists that we feel we should have read by now. Some books that everyone knows a bit of the story already and a lot of people pretend they’ve read because it’s almost embarrassing not to. That kind of book we call classic. Or, as Mark Twain puts it:
‘Classic’ is a book that people praise and don’t read. – Mark Twain
The other day I was going through my to-read list with the spirit of Let’s Get This Organized and realized that most of the books I deleted from it were classics. It got me wondering why it was that I seemed to have put so many classics on my list that I clearly didn’t want to read, and why I didn’t seem to be so attracted to classics in general.
I came to the following conclusions:
- The blatant racism, misogyny and ableism which are very common in such books bother me a lot. Putting the stories in the context in which they were written only works so far for me – I lack patience and excel at being critical. Which means I have to put myself in a very particularly lenient mood to read a classic.
- Most of those stories I know by now, including how they end. There are movies, discussions, articles everywhere, and it feels a bit useless to read I book whose story I already know.
- I find many classics’ writing style boring. Too many rely on far too much description and introspection, meaning not all that much happens. Which is ok for most of them, I just need to be in the mood for that.
- Some of those I felt like I “needed to read” to complement my literary education. Nowadays I don’t think I need to read anything in particular, especially if I don’t want to.
Which are perfectly good reasons to delete a book from your shelf, of course. Also, I must add that these are just my opinions, and it’s not meant to bash people who love classics at all. I also don’t mean to say all classics are as I described above – just that too many of them are.
Many of the American and British classics I am not too familiar with, and considering I got my education in South America, I think that’s quite fair (some Americans were horrified to realize I had never read a Mark Twain book when I lived in the US some years ago.). I did realize though, that many of the classics on my to-read list were put there simply because of the pressure I felt to have read those books (if you speak German as a second language, read The Awful German Language by…. you guessed it, Mark Twain).
(Ok, I’m done with the Mark Twain references. I promise I read classics by other authors, too)
Since the majority of contemporary authors I read come from the US/UK, I feel the need to know the classics from these countries so that I can assess which books could have provided inspiration for them. Classics provide a level of greatness other books are to be compared by – Is this dystopian novel good? But is it as good as 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fahrenheit 451? Can I draw parallels between them?
For that reason, I have forced myself in the past to read books I felt I needed to know, understand and even like at some level. I don’t believe anymore that I must enjoy them just because they are in the classic genre and therefore many people have deemed it Great Literature. It’s perfectly reasonable to see the merits of a book and also absolutely detest it. As a book blogger, I would like to be able to give a comprehensive assessment of the books I read. But…
That does not mean I need or should read classics.
Even if you are a book blogger, there is no absolute need to read classics. You can give a good, complete and well-rounded review on a book without having read the classics of its genre, especially because this is the kind of information you can get by googling, anyways. I don’t want Google and textbooks when I read a review – I want people’s opinions!
Classics do help you compare works, adding curiosities and seeing parallels, but that is all. Comparing Gothic romances to Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights is interesting, but doesn’t tell me if that Gothic novel is good or not. Moreover, unless you actually work in a field that you need to know some particular novels, you aren’t obliged to read anything.
The books you read aren’t the measurement against which your mental ability, intelligence and education are determined. You are not less educated or smart because you don’t want to read Victor Hugo or Virginia Woolf. That is literary elitism and pure prejudice (I will write a post on this in the future). Read for fun. Read a classic book if that book in particular interests you, you sincerely believe you might like it AND it simply happens to be a classic.
So nowadays I only read a classic if I honestly think I will enjoy it or if I my curiosity is stronger than my judgement (I read Brave New World because I wanted to see if I could find parallels between that and YA dystopias. I enjoyed writing the post about it -complaining, yay!-, but didn’t enjoy the book at all, as I suspected I wouldn’t… sigh).
Let me know: What is the one classic you recommend and what do you love about it? And/or the one you definitely don’t recommend?
I read the following articles while writing this post as reference and to help me put all my thoughts together: