As a teenager, hearing the word “classic” coupled with the word “book” was enough to make me suspicious. “Classics” were the books I got forced to read in school. They were the books everyone told me I simply must read, the books I thought would surely be great… until I found myself struggling through an archaic tome that was neither interesting nor inspiring. Even more daunting was the fact that this canon of old, famous and important books was seemingly endless. I felt like I might be in the grave before I finished them all.
As an adult, that underlying trepidation is still there. However, my attitude and approach to classics has changed significantly. This is because of two realisations I had in my early twenties:
1. I didn’t have to read classic books that I didn’t like.
2. I could read classics in genres I had a preference for, and I’d be more likely to enjoy them and find them interesting.
These two things might seem very obvious, but after years of schooling that placed emphasis and value on certain books, I hadn’t been programmed to think this way. When a select group of classic authors and books are the only ones you regularly hear mentioned, you presume they are the most important ones, and the ones you should be reading.
My relationship with literary classics was soured early. There were a few I enjoyed, but they were not in the majority. I read some for school, but also many of my own volition, persevering through to the end of each one even if I disliked it.
So why did I read them? I imagine for the same reason a lot of people read classics: to see what all the fuss was about, to feel like an intelligent person who is reading an intelligent book, to be able to contribute if bookish people bring it up in conversations, to understand literary references in modern books.
Fortunately, as I got older I realised that forcing myself to read a classic book and then lauding it as a masterpiece merely so I could feel intelligent, or at least a part of a literary crowd, was not a valuable or intelligent thing to do. My life wouldn’t be profoundly improved based on whether I had read Tolstoy or not.
So I allowed myself to shelve even the most praised of books if the first few chapters had me snoozing or rolling my eyes, and I generally shied away from anything with the label classic.
However, I found that as an avid reader and a lover of all things old, I couldn’t do away with classics completely. I still liked the idea of reading books that had been important or key in their influence on today’s writers, and I still wanted to contribute to or at least better understand conversations about famous books.
Fortunately, I realised that authors like Woolf, Tolstoy, Hemingway and Joyce were not the only old, important writers I could be reading.
It was a conference in Poland that prompted my first proper exploration into classics that were more up my alley. The theme of the conference was ‘The Gothic’. I knew close to nothing about Gothic novels, so I figured I better hunker down and do some reading, lest I be revealed as a fool or a fraud (once again a silly attitude, as it turned out that no one at the conference discussed any Gothic novels with me).
I read Frankenstein, Dracula, The Castle of Otranto, The Mysteries of Udolpho, Doctor Faustus, The Necromancer and The Picture of Dorian Gray. Did I enjoy them? Some I did, some I didn’t. Dracula was great, and fascinating in its influence on all the vampire stories that have followed it. Frankenstein had an interesting kernel at the centre of the book… a kernel that was unfortunately sandwiched between thick layers of monotony and waffle, but I tolerated them for that kernel. The Picture of Dorian Gray was intriguing, terribly witty and thoroughly creepy.
The point was, however, that even the Gothic classics that I didn’t enjoy were more tolerable than some of the literary classics I’d attempted in my youth. This was because the subjects at their core were more interesting to me, and because I enjoyed seeing how they influenced the modern genres that I so enjoy.
After the conference I felt emboldened to try out some other classics.
Being a fantasy lover, by this time I had already read Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (I will confess, the start of The Fellowship of the Ring bored me to tears, but it got much more interesting after that), and I’d also read The Narnia Chronicles. Still, I decided to try out some old school fantasy I hadn’t yet explored (e.g. Beowulf, The Neverending Story, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol) as well as some more modern classics and much-mentioned fantasy novels (e.g. The Sword of Shannara, Magician, Assassin’s Apprentice, The Eye of the World).
Some I liked, some I adored, and some I didn’t like, but I was glad to have read them (or at least partially read them – I couldn’t finish The Sword of Shannara). This was not just because some turned out to be favourites – for example A Christmas Carol – but also because I could now understand references to them, and better appreciate the variety of the fantasy genre as a whole and the influence these books have had on it.
And my renewed interest in reading classics hasn’t stopped at fantasy novels.
Science Fiction and Dystopian Classics
More recently, I’ve tried out some science fiction classics. I read Dune (Frank Herbert) for the first time about a year ago, closely followed by Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card), Stranger in a Strange Land (Robert Heinlein), Consider Phelbas (Iain Banks) and Foundation (Isaac Asimov). I read the classic dystopian novel 1984, which was thoroughly creepy but very engaging and thought provoking, and very recently read Fahrenheit 451, which made me wonder why on earth it is so critically acclaimed (clumsily written, wooden characters, a weak story creaking under the weight of self-conscious philosophical musings).
Once again, some of these books are now all time favourites and some had my mind wandering a little, but that’s okay. I’m glad to have read them.
I’m glad to have discovered that old, famous, much-referenced books don’t have to be painful experiences.
I’m glad that when someone reserves a few authors as being the elite geniuses, I can recognise that that is their opinion. Just as with modern books, opinions as to which classic books are valuable and worth reading vary.
I’m glad to have read some of the books that were important in shaping the genres I enjoy today.
And I plan to keep reading fantasy and science fiction classics. I’m not going to make up a giant list and religiously drill through them without pause, then feel guilty if I don’t get through them all – that would spoil the fun and lead down the road that made me shy away from classics in the first place. But I am going to read one every now and again, mixed in with more recently published books (because I believe it’s equally, if not more important to read those!) and expand my repertoire of classic novels at a leisurely pace.
Most importantly, I’m not going to do this out of a misguided desire to impress anyone else, or because a teacher told me to. I’m going to do it simply because I want to.
And Tolstoy? Maybe one day I’ll read War and Peace. Maybe I won’t. To be honest, I probably won’t. And that’s perfectly fine with me.