Reading the Classics (or How I Might Be a Totally Stupid Reader)

canstockphoto8858462Okay, I did it. I finally read all the way through Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice And I don’t understand all the sound and fury. I know that some people are nearly rabid about Austen. I was amazed that the writing did keep me engaged, despite the fact that the story and the characters made me want to smash a pianoforte to a million bits and then set it afire. I am a flawed reader who often fails to appreciate nuance in the absence of action, I suppose.

Reading is such a subjective activity and I can be a contrary person. If something is all the rage, I’m likely to read it several decades down the road, when people finally shut up about it. I wait until bestsellers show up in secondhand bookstores, when they’ve already been turned into crappy movies and mouse pads. If it’s a classic, I’m likely never to read it at all, unless a grade is involved.

I force marched myself through Tolstoy’s War and Peace as some sort of masochistic challenge. I’m sure it was a fine novel. I forgot the whole damned thing while I was reading it, because I had to spend too much time looking at the cast of characters in the front of the book. I have a background in Russian language, yet I could not keep the  -ovs, -ichs and -skis straight.

I’m an eclectic reader and I don’t pretend to have good taste. I like a good story, direct language and a sense at the end of the book that the writer pulled a hat trick. He or she drew me into a world, into emotions that were not my own. Toni Morrison breaks my heart. Wally Lamb makes me sigh. Voltaire makes me giggle at absurdity. Flannery O’Connor gives me the chills.

It hit me over the last couple of weeks that I may have gotten myself completely wrong as a writer. I wrote a contemporary novel, but got bored part way in and just started turning my characters into complete freaks. When I look at what I like to read, it is apparent that longer works of fiction are rarely in my book stack. This gives me pause, due to that old truism about writing what you want to read. Apparently there is more than one reason why I’d prefer not to read what I’ve written.

As I’ve gotten older, I read more nonfiction and random one-off books, as well as short story collections. I try to read from a variety of genres, genders, geographical and ethnic backgrounds, but I wonder if this dilutes my ability to truly appreciate any one particular form. I don’t have the chance to develop a keen sense of “good” writing because my leap from one form to the other prevents comparison.

I am often grateful that I did not pursue a degree in literature, though. The lit classes I took throughout high school and college ruined whatever piece of work we were reading. I learned to loathe Joseph Conrad and Jonathan Swift in this manner. And I was disappointed after reading The Great Gatsby that any single character was left standing. I felt a pianoforte inferno was due there as well.

The books that I hold dear are great stories, but maybe not great literature. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a cherished book on my shelf, as is Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn and Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Everything by Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams and Anne Tyler has a home on the shelf, as do my Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle collections (gifts from my grandfather). My shelf of light reading contains a lot of Tom Clancy, Robert Ludlum, J.K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell and short story collections – paperbacks well worn from airports and beaches. I might never read them again, but they are what I imagine luxury to look like.

There are times when I read what I think I should, but maybe it’s that sense of obligation that turns things for me. There’s never as much pleasure as when I “discover” a book on my own. This latest turn about the garden with Austen reminds me that it is unlikely I’ll ever enjoy something that is described as a “novel of manners”, because I apparently don’t have any when it comes to literary appreciation. But in the words of Elizabeth Bennett: you must give me leave to judge for myself. 

I usually have several books in play at any given time. I’m currently reading:

The Big Sea by Langston Hughes

Sustainable [R]evolution: Permaculture in Ecovillages, Urban Farms and Communities Worldwide by Juliana Birnbaum and Louis Fox

Every War Has Two Losers by William Stafford

We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider

What’s in your reading stack?

 

43 Comments on “Reading the Classics (or How I Might Be a Totally Stupid Reader)

  1. I’m currently pursuing a degree in the English Language and Culture… Well, it’s about the same as a literary degree, except that I can drop the literary part as soon as I make it to the next year. At the moment, there is nothing left for me to read – meaning that I’m out of subject material at the moment. Like you, I’ve already learned to loathe Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (I am so sorry) and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I get it, they are important to the literary history, but that’s it… I don’t like them.

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    • I laughed when I saw the loathing for Harper Lee. Part of me wants to defend it with my life and the other part of me whispers “but you totally hate Hamlet, too!” Reading is one of those marvelous, subjective things that a person just has to own up to their preferences and let it ride. In some ways, getting a degree in literature for me would be like turning a hobby into a paying gig. Somehow it takes the fun out of it. On the other hand, maybe it would lend a greater appreciation to the writers’ skills. Thanks for your comment!

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  2. (Hi, I’m new to your blog, but I can’t resist jumping in a book conversation!) You actually made me want to pick up my copy of Pride and Prejudice–love it! Emma is the one that makes me want to chew off my fingers so I have an excuse to stop reading–shallow, spoiled, unintelligent rich girl decides to marry a older rich man who will tell her what to think and do. Other than that, I can’t share what I just read because it’s embarrassing to think of all the times I’ve fallen for 5 star, ecstatic reviews on YA books. Next, I might pick up the Lord of the Rings because it’s been 20 years since I read it last, and, I confess, I didn’t really enjoy it, but maybe it will be better this time around.

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    • As a bonafide Harry Potter reader, I think we can leave shame at the door. And I didn’t even mention the absolute garbage I’ve downloaded on my Kindle so that no one will see me reading it! I’ve never read Lord of the Rings, but much to my chagrin, read Battlefield Earth. There’s just no accounting for taste.
      I’m glad to see when an affinity for a book does not necessarily extend to all the books written by the same author. That kind of author worship makes me suspicious, since not everything an author writes should be given the same weight.
      I love talking books – it gets me excited about working on my own again. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

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  3. My current reading stack consists of nothing but books with lots of pictures of English Cottage gardens. I haven’t ever been a cult reader. Never read Harry Potter. A friend of mine highly recommended it. She often recommends books, loans them to me even, but alas they sometimes get returned a year later still unread. As for Pride and Prejudice, the version with Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant is my fave.
    Happy Summertime!!

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    • I might have to steal your stack of books – I’ve desperately been transforming our front and backyards into perennial gardens for the last 10 years. It’s purple time right now – all the purple flowers are blooming at once. Planning a garden is not a strength!
      I’ve learned never to borrow books, except from the library. It feels like unspoken pressure and then if I give it back too soon, the lender might actually ask me what I thought of it. Um, the cover is pretty…
      Happy summertime to you too, Honie!

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  4. If we all liked the same thing, where would we be? Literature and music and art are all subjective; we like what we like. My tastes include Shakespeare (I have two different ‘Complete Works’ and read them for fun!) and Harry Potter. I also re-read the LOTR every couple of years. I like everything Diana Gabaldon writes, not equally, but I know her work will at least keep me entertained. I prefer writing short stories over novels but prefer reading novels over short stories. I have never read Fifty Shades of Grey and probably never will, but I have read other equally forgettable books. Oh, and I was an English major after I decided I didn’t want to stay a Geology major after suffering through Calculus 3.

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    • If we all liked the same thing, it would be totally creepy. I’m sure that’s been a premise for a futuristic novel somewhere. I have read 50 Shades of Grey and I mourn the fact that there’s no way to get that time back.
      Your comment shows me the downside of writing about reading – more ideas to add to the reading list. I’ve never read Diana Gabaldon, but I just read the description of how she merges multiple genres. Another author to put on the list! I’ll likely never read Lord of the Rings, just because it’s become a franchise and after living through the Harry Potter thing with my daughter (years 6-9), I’m wary of a repeat.
      It’s very interesting to read about your preferences for writing versus reading. Lately, I’ve become concerned that my thinking about writing has become so single-minded that I’m missing the big picture.

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      • I’ve been reading LOTR since the 60s. The movies were good, but there’s so much more in the books; each movie would have to have been 20 hours long to incorporate everything that was in the books. Well maybe that’s in exaggeration. 🙂

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        • I haven’t seen the movies, either, but I’ve heard the series mentioned so often, that at some point in the undefined future, maybe I’ll read them. I’m sure that the series served as an influence and inspiration for many of the writers today.

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  5. SO interesting to see what you like and don’t, given your clean, clear, and always engaging writing style. I was entranced by “Pride and Prejudice”–and surprised that a book of that era, written in that style, had so much humor! Years later, read “Emma”, and hated it! Capital BOR-ING. Could not believe the same author had written both.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird”: Saw the film first, fell in love, was ever so grateful that the book was even better. Still love them both.

    “Gatsby”? Eh. “War and Peace”? Forced myself, until halfway, when I wised up and said “For what? For whom? This is merely a horribly overblown emotion-free soap opera that does not succeed either as an effective telling of history.” (Well, my mental voice may have not been quite that articulate.) My fav meatier authors? Heller (“Something Happened”), John Gardner (“October Light”), Updike (“Rabbit” series, “Witches”)

    (BTW, I couldn’t slog through the H.P. books–great ideas, but boy did they need a good editing down. Said this overwordy pot re: those kettles : )

    Just finished a fantastic WWI memoir: “A Soldier On the Southern Front”, by Emilio Lussu, A plain, straightforward style, the way I like my writing. Just says what happened, and lets what happened speak for itself. Reads like the most outrageous fumbles of the war from Heller’s Catch-22 and Mash, but stated calmly, sorta like Hemingway’s Jake in “The Sun Also Rises”. Really effective, for me.

    Now I’m running through some kids’ books by Andrew Clements, Dave Lubar, and John Christopher. (Own a bunch of kid lit.). Have barely time to read much currently, but will check out those last two books you linked to–they look interesting–thanks!

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    • Wow – you have some great ideas for reading. I want to check out that WWI memoir. I do tend to read a lot of war novels: “All Quiet on the Western Front”, “Catch-22”, etc. but I don’t enjoy Hemingway. I enjoyed Joseph Heller and some Updike. Not too long ago I finished “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain with mixed feelings, which I think was much the point of the novel.
      My favorite kids’ books include “The Library Lion” by Michelle Knudsen, “Oscar, Cat-About-Town” by James Herriot and the Zen books by Jon Muth. And those are just the ones my daughter grew up with – I have a personal list of my own, but that might be another post!
      Thanks for feeding this conversation – it brings to mind so many other books!

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  6. I’m currently reading “The Tiger’s Wife” by Tea Obreht and I love it! I think you would like this one, Michelle. My mom passed it on to me. The books she recommends are always great! Time is too short to spend reading what we should, right? I majored in English, but had to read things so quickly I either didn’t enjoy them or quickly forgot them. Every now and then I’ll go back to read a classic, feeling I should read it and it’s like reading it for the first time.

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    • Thanks for another one to add to the list!
      I am somewhat concerned that as a writer, I should have at least a passing knowledge of what is considered classic literature. And I worry that if I don’t know how to recognize good writing, how will I write well myself? I suppose these are typical insecurities from someone who doesn’t have a literary education. I have often thought I should return to school and focus on literature, but then I remember what an awful student I was (lots of snoozing in class) and how much it costs…

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      • No problem! I think you’ll really like that book. I think most of all that you should enjoy what you read. I try to read a combo of contemporary and classic, plus blog posts. Ha ha. There’s so much to read now, it’s impossible to read it all. You can always start a book club. But, I don’t think you need to go back to school. Nothing improves writing like more writing. The more I write, the more I want to read.

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  7. I inherited over a hundred of these leather bound classics with golden embossed pages when my father passed away. You have planted a seed of inspiration to read one….

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    • Wow. There is something mesmerizing about leather bound books. When I was in England and Scotland many years ago, we visited Abbotsford, the home of Sir Walter Scott (author of Ivanhoe and Rob Roy). He had a huge library full of leather bound volumes. It was my fantasy library, except that I would have added some cushy reading chairs and lightened the room up a bit!

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  8. I’m with you on this. I tried reading something by Balzac and after 20 pages, it had only partially finished describing one room and … [yawn!] … I gave up. Maybe it’s great art, but it’ll have to be great art with other readers.

    Vonnegut is completely different (better) as is Catch 22.

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    • I have to admit to being a Vonnegut diehard, but I know it’s often an acquired taste. I wonder too if some “classics” suffer in translation. I’m getting better at just putting something down if I have to work too hard to figure out what the hell someone is saying. If I have to keep re-reading pages to understand what is happening or I find myself dozing off too frequently – that book is a-goner.

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  9. Anybody who loves Beloved (also happens to be one of the greatest books, literature -wise ;)) has great taste in reading, Michelle.

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    • That is one of three books that made me sit in stunned silence for an hour when I reached the end. The other two were A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley and I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb. All very different writers, but it took me a long time to unwind out of their novels and come back to reality. Maybe that is what defines great literature in my mind – I’m awed and asking the question: How did they do that?

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  10. I am reading Behind The Beautiful Forevers — Katherine Boo, Falling Into Grace — Adyashanti, i just finished re-reading The Alchemist (which I preferred this time) — Paulo Coehlo and I am re-reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. All over the place, like you.

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    • Ooh, I forgot One Hundred Years of Solitude – I liked that one too. I haven’t heard of the other ones, but now I’ll have to look them up and likely add more to my list. Books are marvelous – there’s just not enough time to read everything one would like!

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      • I know. And my Books-I-Want-to-read list gets longer and longer every day. Apparently Behind The Beautiful Forevers has been on the NY Times bestsellers list for ages. I had no idea. Just ‘discovered’ it last week and I am enjoying it. Adyashanti is a spiritual teacher and I recently saw him on Super Soul Sunday (an Oprah show). I liked what he was saying so ordered the book.

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        • I like finding those connections to books as well. Usually I follow a trail of bread crumbs from one book or area of interest to another. It’s like going on a library safari.
          I have, though, embarrassed myself on more than one occasion rhapsodizing about a book that everyone else had read ages ago!

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        • Me too, btw. I love the idea of going on a library safari. I am going to remember that!

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  11. I’m an Austen fan, but I understand your distaste. Each time I read it I thank my stars that I didn’t live in such a vapid world!

    But books are so very personal — and mood driven. I love or hate classics — there is no in between! I would rather be boiled in ink than read another paragraph of Dostoyevsky — life is too short to read something that depressing. I’d rather re-read Harry Potter …

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    • I felt that way about Crime and Punishment – depressing read that could be only slightly ameliorated with booze.

      In terms of Austen, I know that had I lived during that time period, I would have been scrubbing floors and serving tea to that lot of layabouts.

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      • Me too! I’m sure it wasn’t many generations ago that my ancestors were doing the very same thing!

        There is actually a lovely book written last year called “Longbourn” that tells the parallel story of the servants. It sounds hokey, but it is beautifully written.

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  12. I’m a fan of series, but also want to start a pianoforte fire by about the third book. The Neverending Game of Thrones comes to mind. Or Raymond Feist’s Midkemia marathon. The first couple of books are usually great—tightly written, interesting characters, fascinating worlds—then we start taking chapters to describe the landscape. Ugh.

    I need something to read, Michelle. What do you recommend?

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    • Hi Sandy, I always feel like personally recommending books is a slippery slope. It sounds like you read a lot of fantasy genre, some of which I’ve read, but not much. I checked in with a friend who is a fantasy writer/reader and she mentioned a couple of authors she’d recently enjoyed reading who had written standalone books: Patricia McKillip and Brandon Sanderson. Currently, I’m really enjoying Tim Kreider’s “We Know Nothing”, but it’s nonfiction essay. Since I have a youngster, lately I’ve been re-reading Phillip Pullman (Dark Materials) and Piers Anthony (Incarnations of Immortality series), digging in the archives trying to find age appropriate stories for someone who reads at a higher level than her age.
      I wish I could be more helpful. There’s just never enough time to read all the books I’d like!

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      • No, this is helpful. I read loads of Patricia McKillip a while back, but haven’t heard of Sanderson. I’ll dig through the library for him. I think I’ll check out the Lamb books you mentioned above, too.

        Piers Anthony is a real blast from the past. Have you read Madeline L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time with your daughter? It was one of my favorites.

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        • We’ve read A Wrinkle in Time (and the other books in the series), listened to the audiobooks, seen the movies and even a play. I really enjoy that story!
          The Lamb books are not light reads and sometimes painful in their subject matter. The one he gained notice for was “She’s Come Undone”. “I Know This Much is True” is my favorite. I enjoyed “The Hour I First Believed”, but again, it was tough subject matter. Lamb, as a writer, has the ability to take the most unlovable, sometimes self-destructive people and make them redeemable.

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  13. I love Tolstoy but never finished “War and Peace” for the same reasons you mentioned. One of my favorite authors who falls into the Vonnegut and Adams category is Christopher Moore. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, check out his book “LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”. He just wrote a new one called “The Serpent of Venice” and it’s William Shakespeare meets Edgar Allen Poe, which is still on my “to read” list. I am currently reading YA “The Fault in our Stars” so I can watch the movie. :-/ I never read any of the 50 Shades or Twilight books, but I did read Harry Potter and Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles.

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    • I’ve never read anything by Christopher Moore and after reading his bio and bibliography, I must! I haven’t read “Wonder” or “The Fault in Our Stars” yet and don’t plan on reading the Twilight books. The vampire thing has really played itself out for me. I read Anne Rice in high school and really enjoyed TV Buffy, but I think that’s enough myth for me.
      I love all these great reading ideas popping up in the comment section. Thank you!

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  14. Reading through your post and the comments, I find it so interesting that one person can love an author I adore (Toni Morrison), dislike someone I dislike (Hemingway), love writing I can’t stand (Flannery O’Connor—yes, I’m a female Southern short story writer who doesn’t like O’Connor), and dislike a book I unexpectedly fell in love with (War and Peace). It seems taste in writing isn’t just subjective; there’s very little predictability to it. Which I love. Thanks for the conversation.

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    • When I think of the huge range of quirks, prejudices, preferences, etc. that humans entail, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by the wide range of literary tastes, but I always am. I think this is interesting from a writing perspective in that writing for an audience is a flawed premise, since it’s unlikely we know who that audience entails.
      I’ll be the first to admit that I have to fight my own prejudice – I’ll click with someone and then I see what they are reading and that can often turn the tide of an emerging friendship. I have to remind myself that I would be embarrassed if some of my reading choices were revealed – at least they own up to theirs!

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  15. Very often the older classics are “of their time,” and it gets harder to appreciate them as distance widens. You’ve done pretty well though to try the number you have. Right now I’m reading Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, the latest Food and Wine Magazine (yes, I will count an occasional magazine as current reading material), and The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer, which is my challenge like Austen is yours.

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    • I find it challenging to read many of these books since I have modern sensibilities – especially in regards to the role of women. I think this made Austen a bigger challenge for me. As a nice change of pace, I’m starting “The Woman Warrior” by Maxine Hong Kingston.
      I went on a conservation/de-cluttering bender and cancelled all my magazine subscriptions, but I miss them. They were always the version of me I wanted to be – Yoga Journal, Vegetarian Times and Mother Earth News. The copies at the library always look like they’ve been through several dentist reception areas and possibly used as coasters.

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  16. There’s certainly a longtime tradition of book snobbery among those who have Read the Classics, but not only does the canon contain what the Coneheads of Saturday Night Live history would’ve called Mass Quantities of crap, if you happen to ask some of us, the common list also fails to recognize plenty of good quality stuff deserving of better. And more importantly in my personal book, all great reading is not necessarily great writing! To me, the importance of a good education is in allowing us to see for ourselves what *we* find worth reading. Even re-reading. Me, I like a whole lot of *your* list. Though I think I have enjoyed some of the Austen and other stuff you hated, along with plenty of Ludlum, Cornwell, Adams & Conan Doyle.

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    • I always get the sense that established writers seem to have a wide-ranging knowledge of the literature that came before, especially when it comes to using literary allusion in their own writing. I wonder, too, that we’ve become so accustomed to being spoon fed our culture, that we should be open to the challenges of more difficult work. I am sometimes surprised when something ends up being the 50 Shades of that particular time period.
      And I think you are right about the point of education – to give us the tools to be discerning readers, writers, etc.

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