Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ve had several experiences (like I mentioned in this post) that basically prove to me that many people just aren’t familiar with the classics anymore, even by name.
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not intimately familiar with every single classic (yet), but because I set the crazy goal I mentioned in this post, I’ve become a lot more familiar with the so-called “classics” of literature than most of the general population.
(Plus I’m an English teacher, and if I wasn’t familiar with most of my classics, I’d basically have no street cred. Or something like that.)
I brought A Passage to India to girls’ camp last week, and almost every other camp leader asked me if it was good (or if I was enjoying it).
I never know how to answer that question when it comes to most classics.
After floundering for some simple answer to their innocent question, I decided that I needed an entire blog post to devote to the subject.
That way, if you don’t care to hear the long answer to the question, “Oh, is that book good?”, then you can just stop reading instead of feeling like you’re stuck in a time warp because I won’t shut up already.
SO, first things first: oftentimes with classics (and other “literary” books), the reading of the book itself is not always enjoyable. In fact, sometimes it’s just downright slow, difficult, and yawn-worthy. But, by the end of a classic, I’m almost always glad I read it because it increased my worldview, perspective, and knowledge in a way that a “lighter” read just simply could not.
I don’t know where people got this idea that “difficult” reads aren’t worth the work needed to understand them (maybe school?), but I wholeheartedly think that that idea alone is what kills the drive to read classics for many people.
Since I first started faithfully reading the classics about ten years ago, I’ve gleaned a few tips that I’ll go ahead and pass along. Maybe all of these won’t work for everyone, but they sure have worked for me.
Tips for Reading Classics
1. I highly recommend that you buy your own copy of the book instead of just borrowing it from the library. I suggest this so that you can freely mark up that copy with notes, questions, and impressions (and not make anyone want to come find you and drive a pencil through your head for destroying her book).
2. Understand that you’re probably going to need to do what teachers nowadays call a “close reading” of the book. Basically all that that means is that you’re going to need to read slowly and carefully and be willing to read and re-read some passages over and over again.
3. In many classics, the language is often a difficult barrier to cross at first. When you come across words you don’t know, try to guess at their meaning based on what’s around them. If you can tell that you’re missing a crucial point by not knowing that word, just look the word up and write its definition in the margin of your book. (I did this when I was reading through A Christmas Carol again right before teaching it for the first time. Although I’d read the book before, my understanding was increased a hundredfold when I went through the book and wrote down the definitions to every word I thought my students would struggle with.) Sure, it takes extra time, but understanding is key to eventually enjoying.
4. Oftentimes, classics will have what’s called allusion, which is when they will refer to another classic piece of work (such as stories from Greek mythology or references to Shakespeare or the Bible). Whenever you come across something that seems like a proper noun out of context (such as, “That devilish Iron Horse, whose ear-rending neigh is heard throughout the town”), go ahead and Google it. If you find that it is referring to another classic, read about the reference and make a note in the margin of your book. Once again, more work in reading usually equals more understanding (and more enjoyment).
5. If while reading, you find that you’re having a hard time keeping track of everything, make a quick list of characters (listing some general info and character traits by the side of each name). I had to do this with the beginning of A Passage to India, and it’s been an incredible reference tool while reading. Remember, you’re not being graded or judged on any of this, so just create it in a format that makes the most sense to you.
6. Most classics have study aids that go along with them. For free study aids, check out Spark Notes for a wide selection of free helps, or just do a search for your specific book title along with “study aids.” Oftentimes, these study aids will make tips 3, 4, and 5 WAY easier.
7. Try to enlist at least one other person to read the book with you (or just find someone who has read it before) so that you can talk together about your thoughts on what you’re reading and what you don’t understand. Reading becomes WAY more fun when you get to talk about it with someone who understands what you’re going through.
8. When you come across a difficult passage, read through it several times and look first for the literal meaning of it (what’s happening on the surface), and then look for the deeper meaning of it. To understand the deeper meanings of texts, ask yourself questions such as, How does this relate to the rest of the book? What similarities do I see between this and what’s going on in the world today? If I knew I was supposed to get some kind of “lesson” from this passage, what would it be?
9. If you can handle it, read a “lighter” book at the same time that you’re reading the classic to give your brain a break every once in awhile. I will almost always read a young adult novel or some other simple book alongside reading a classic, which prevents me from getting burned out.
10. Print out or keep a document of all the books you want to read and have already finished. Often when I’m ready to just give up on the book already, I’ll think about how satisfying it will be to check that book off of my reading lists, and I push through it. It’s so weird, but it works.
Hope some of these help!
Also, just to get you started, I decided to make a couple suggestions for classics to read when you’re just starting to get your feet wet.
Great “Beginner” Classics (easier to understand, more immediately enjoyable):
Their Eyes were Watching God
The Great Gatsby
A Christmas Carol
Classics w/ Great Story Lines (but which are more difficult due to language, length, or content):
Pride & Prejudice (or anything by Jane Austen really)
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
How do you feel about reading classics? Do you think they’re worth the work?