The genre we have named “the classics” are a tricky bunch to like. It’s not just that some are written in a foreign language or in a dialect of one’s native language that is centuries/decades old. Or that the author takes forever to get to “plot progression” (in other words, making the story go on). Or that the whole book can be literally exhausting for the mind to understand. It’s not the length, the subgenre, the writing style, the vocabulary, or the time period when the work was written. Public pressure, media adoration, film adaptations: these are all factors to consider. Usually every person has expectations (e.g. from recommendations and favorite TV series) for the classics, especially in view of that worldwide thought that classic reading is good reading. And when it comes to reading certain classics, it’s literally like trying to translate your modern understanding of the work and/or your preconceptions into a entirely different language when your mind is processing the actual, original text.
I’m a hopeless bookworm. I’ve been reading since I figured out what a gleeful, satisfactory treasure house books contain in their thin, translucent pages and medium print. I’ve found out that there are many authors I admire and love. BUT…there are also authors I just…admire. I can’t love them. Nevertheless, I’ll always remember the first and last time I read their books. A few examples:
- Jane Austen. I love her originality, her witty feminist remarks, and her sharp outline of life in the Regency Period. HOWEVER: Despite the hidden wisdom in her well-coined phrases and her timeless storylines, I can’t help feeling bored when I read her novels. There is simply no action inside any of the stories. They have spirit but aren’t spirited. Every step the characters take seems to trudge from one to the other without any flow. For lack of a better metaphor: when I read books, I envision a river of action, where the story progresses from beginning to finish. I want to feel like I’m swimming alongside the characters in that river, not merely watching every ripple from the nearby riverbank.
- Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre is her magnum opus. She used brilliant vocabulary and created THE romance plotline to mother later plots by other authors. HOWEVER: Jane’s first person narrative is insightful, but rather flat and unemotional. You need a collegiate dictionary and maybe the Oxford set of dictionaries to get through Jane’s scholarly use of English, even when she’s expressing her feelings. In the end, it’s like trying to dig for buried treasure: a lot of much-needed pauses and rest stops in between all that digging through the sand of big words to get to the meaningful core of the story at the bottom.
- Sir Walter Scott. A prolific and unique writer. Reading his richly detailed novels is like looking at large, colorful paintings. His historical research is extremely well grounded. HOWEVER: Scott’s descriptions are so vivid and complex that it is astounding how the author himself could have imagined a single scene of his book without getting a major headache. While his picturesque writing style is amazing in itself, it is also exhausting to deal with. I couldn’t even get through the beginning of Ivanhoe because I almost fell asleep during Scott’s description of what Wamba and Gurth were wearing while pig herding. I would need a LOT of energy to digest his vast imagination while trying to cope with the Middle English/Scottish vocabulary, history lessons, and equally complex fictional plots.
- Alexander Dumas. Scott’s French counterpart (despite the time difference). His direct focus on French history is unsurpassed, he spins the wildest tales around historical characters and actual events, and he gives his writing style a distinctive romantic flourish. HOWEVER: You need time to do a little research before you read any of Dumas’s novels, because you will be lost among his extensive cast of characters and where they fit into the plots’ parallel historical timelines. Unless you’re a French history major, you’ll miss all those “AHA!” moments when Dumas reveals his twist on the history and the facts. He never gives any helpful introductions, so I’d be on the lookout for an encyclopedia when faced with browsing his very prolific portfolio.
- Bram Stoker. Dracula is the vampire novel of all vampire novels. It single-handedly started the subgenre of vampire novels. The way it’s written, first-person storytelling through the eyesight of the characters’ journals and news clippings, started a new kind of narration for later writers to follow in their own writing. HOWEVER: The story drags on and on. Simply stated, Dracula is…dead. I read through it for the original plot’s sake, but would I read it again? Never. Although informative and academic at times, Dracula‘s horror element and its sense of action/adventure was never evident enough for me, because I felt like the novel was more of a treatise than a work of fiction.
- Charles Dickens. A master at storytelling, a superb weaver of complex mysteries, and a compassionate observer of what really went on in Victorian England in regards to the opportunities and lives of the lower and middle classes. He also verbally whipped the “upper classes” with the sting of his criticism about their extravagant living and the source of their “income.” HOWEVER: His word list really is “the Dickens.” I tried to fully grasp all of Great Expectations and the ever popular A Christmas Carol, but I got completely lost amid his long-winded sentences and his mind-boggling use of English vocabulary. Don’t even ask what happened when I attempted to swallow some of David Copperfield. With Dickens, words I even know mean different things in his novels. Did middle-class and lower-class people in Victorian England really talk like that? How did they manage to understand each other without utilizing a dictionary while speaking? Anyway, regardless of how I really need to upgrade my knowledge of English vocabulary, Dickens really is a marvelous writer and he created some of the finest stories ever written. But…I can’t seem to enjoy reading his books. It feels more like I’m working when I’m reading them. And considering the content, it’s a lot for the mind to take in.
- Lewis Carroll. A poet and a writer, Carroll’s books are some of the most famous for children. HOWEVER: The problem I’ve always had when trying to read Alice in Wonderland is how, even as a kid, his stories and “ballads” always were nonsensical for me, to the point that I didn’t even want to venture into Wonderland. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what he was talking about in his poems. And I also couldn’t figure out his sense of humor or how anything in his books related to the kid audience. The only thing left to admire here was his eccentricity and his one-of-a-kind imagination. Not to mention all those invented words that sound like a literary recipe gone horribly awry.
- William Shakespeare. A man of mystery, he is considered the greatest playwright to have existed. HOWEVER: Why not save the worst for last? Although his poetry is well rhymed and his sonnets are bearable, going through his plays is mental torture. English’s development as a language during all those centuries was a necessary evil, one that is almost impossible to understand when you’re looking at it on paper. And that’s when you have the “translated” version of Shakespeare’s plays in front of you. His metaphors in his plays and the dialogues themselves are like creeping ivy, all twisted and entangled. I would have to study each part of each play individually for at least a day before I would be able to decipher any meaning in what the guy’s trying to say. It’s not just Shakespeare’s bombastic language that’s a problem — his flagrant use of sexual innuendo and his vulgar inclinations hardly balance the themes of some of his plays. The subject matter of his plays can also be debated. In any case, reading Shakespeare’s plays is something I’d only do if forced…and after going through A Midsummer Night’s Dream without any major takeaway, I don’t think I’d ever force myself to endure the literary hardship that is Shakespeare.
There are many more authors, many more classics. I just picked a few authors that came to mind, some of which I admire more than others. How about you? What’s your take on “the classics” reading list? What classic novels and authors do you love to admire and perhaps love to avoid?