Saturday, 8 March 2014

A Confession on Classics

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Teju Cole (super-author and Tweeter-Extraordinaire) was asked, 'What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?' His answer: "I have not read most of the big 19th-century novels that people consider “essential,” nor most of the 20th-century ones for that matter. But this does not embarrass me... Life's too short for score-keeping." Upon reading this, my heart soared, because until now I have had what I thought was a terrible secret weighing heavily on me....  I don't care much for what people term 'Classics'.

I know Cole doesn't explicitly mention the term 'classics', but let's face it, the question the NYT put to him was a loaded one: it implied that there are books that, if you wish to be known as a serious writer or reader, you should have read by now - and if you haven't, you should be apologising for that fact. If anything, these would surely be considered the Classics. I've long been a 'Classics' apologist, in that, if I'm asked if I've read certain books, I'll often answer with 'I haven't yet, but...' I even, nearly two years ago, threatened on this very blog to read my way through a list of 100 Classic Books. I never did it (why I am reminding you of my failures?!), partly because it was very hard to find what could be classed as a definitive list (more of that in a minute), but mostly because I didn't want to. My love of reading stems from the freedom it gives me: we now live in a wonderful world where we can read books by people from other cultures and countries; by people who have turned away from traditional publishing; by anyone, in short, who manages to sit down and actually write an entire book or story. We can visit Ancient Athens or a dystopian future; we can go to the Old West, or turn-of-the-century Japan; we can go anywhere, visit anyone, see anything now. Why would I want to limit myself to a list someone else compiled?

And there's the other thing: who decides what goes on a 'Classics' list? When I first mentioned my ill-fated foray into giving myself a reading list, I had settled on using this one as my guide, because it was voted for by 'regular' people, and I liked the democratic element. It doesn't explicitly mention the term 'Classics' either, but there's enough on there that are generally held to earn the title to make it as good a list as any. Obviously it helped that I'd already read a few (25 to be exact, which is an accidental improvement on when I previously checked), but I confess I was daunted by the task: I'd already attempted, and failed, to read several of the books mentioned, there were more than I'd care to mention that I hadn't heard of, and a fair few that I had no interest whatsoever in even attempting. And there was still the question: why were these books considered 'Classics' anyway? I've been thinking about that term a bit recently, and my conclusion was that a Classic book was one that endured through the ages, and asked questions of ourselves and others that we might previously not have wondered. Undoubtedly many of the books on that list fill this criteria, but it doesn't make me want to read them more than any other book, and that is the worry I have long struggled with: that I can't consider myself a proper lover of books if I haven't read the most important ones.

But since Morrissey, King of the Knobs, managed to get his autobiography published as a Penguin Modern Classic (!), I've been questioning just how big a deal it is that I maybe haven't read as many classic books as perhaps people think I should have done, and now I've decided - I don't care. I read for the pleasure of it, and if I'm not enjoying it, what's the point? It's not like 'enjoyment' is a term exclusively used for vapid, silly, shallow summer holiday reads: you can read books that upset you and disturb you, and still on some level enjoy them. Shouldn't the term 'Classic' be more personal, and refer to those books that you, personally, return to again and again, because they speak to you, because they make you think, but most importantly, because you enjoy them? I've decided I'm done with reading books because the world thinks I should: from now on, I'm going to stick to my instincts, and read what appeals to me. To paraphrase Teju Cole, life's too short to spend reading stuff you don't want to.

So in light of this, I'm now going to make a few literary confessions that have weighed heavily on my soul and conscience.
  • I have tried, and failed, to finish the following 'Classics', all of which are currently sat on my bookshelf: Inferno by Dante Alighieri; Catch-22 by Joseph Heller; Paradise Lost by John Milton; Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
  • I've only read one book apiece by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, and consecutively they're Pride and Prejudice and A Christmas Carol. I tried reading Emma but couldn't hack it, Sense and Sensibility was too boring to continue with and I've never found any of Dickens' works appealing.
  • I really like young adult fantasy books, like Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas and Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I know they're not technically for my age group, but I like that they're easy and fun to read, and they're perfect for my commutes because they often make me forget I'm even on a train.
  • I'm currently reading Stoner by John Williams, which was originally published in 1965 but has since enjoyed a renewed popularity, and I'm not really enjoying it. It's gotten better since Edith arrived, but mostly I'm struggling to understand why this book has been so lauded.
What's your opinion on 'The Classics'? Are there any you've been embarrassed to say you haven't read? Any that you can't understand why they're called 'Classics'? Any guilty secrets about your reading habits to spill? C'mon now, share - don't make me the only one...


  1. I know exactly what you mean - it's a bit of an inferiority complex from not having studied Lit past 16 for me, I think. I've tried to read more 'classics' - modern or older - in the last couple of years, some of which I've enjoyed (The Grapes of Wrath; most of Crime and Punishment; American Pastoral), some of which I've endured (Pride and Prejudice; the Big Sleep), some of which I've just not finished (Underworld; Heart of Darkness) or am not likely to start (Brideshead Revisited has sat forlornly on my shelf for over a year). Basically, they're like any other subset of books.

    Part of it is definitely that to be a 'serious' reader you're supposed to have read these books, and not only that but you're supposed to... not quite enjoy, but respect them. And that can also make starting them quite daunting, because it can feel like a task you have to complete rather than an experience you want. I started A Confederacy of Dunces with a lot of trepidation, expecting a dense, difficult, worthy book (in fact it's very funny), but my expectation of it was telling. It's also harder for me to form my actual opinion afterwards because it's still coloured by the view that this is High Art and must be Treated As Such.

  2. I'm currently reading 'The Evil Genius' by Wilkie Collins and I love it. I agree with you on many points. I have never been able to read Austin or Dickins, but I love many of the classics. Henderson the Rain King, Lord of the Flies, The Moonstone, Treasure Island, Dracula, The Woman in White, A Woman of No Importance, Alice in Wonderland, The Phantom of the Opera etc... All classified as Classics but far more engaging than those that spring to most people's minds first.

  3. Well said! I too have only read one Austen (Pride and Prejudice of course), haven't even attempted a Dickens and gave up with Catch-22! I have started Dracula about 3 times because I feel like I should read it but life IS too short to read books that don't interest, engage or entertain you. Give up and move on to the next one! :)

    Nicki x