View Full Version : The Classics

07-23-2006, 07:26 AM
I rarely read fiction until I started writing my novel. I could finish one book, but not read another for a long time because it wouldn't hold my interest. I had read a lot of Pratchett, Tolkien, Orwell, Vonnegut, and some other isolated examples of other authors--as well as tons and tons of non-fiction. I think I really honed my writing skills on internet forums and newsgroups, none of which were devoted to writing until now.

But when I started writing, I took more interest in reading, especially the books that I figured I ought to read. Dickens, Dostoevsky, Camus, Dumas, and so forth. Lately I've started reading Last of the Mohicans because I wanted to read some classic American novels from the 19th century, but it's not holding my interest (of course, neither did Dickens or Dostoevsky at first, and now I love them).

I really like these older books, it's hard for me to work up much interest in a more modern book. But I'm wondering if I'm the only one. Who else here has created their own program of classic reading? What sort of books did you read? Were there any books that, in spite of the critical acclaim, you just couldn't bother finishing?

I know it's silly, but every time I want to read something more modern I feel a pang of guilt, that as a writer I should finish getting grounded in the classics before I spend time reading something that might be forgotten fifty years from now. I know, it's stupid.

07-23-2006, 11:24 PM
It's not stupid; it's just the way you do things.
When I read the classics, I head straight for the juvenile section of the library and read it ... uh, in the easy to read format. Otherwise, I wouldn't read them at all.

Is that stupid? I don't think so. I think it's just me. YMMV

07-24-2006, 01:21 AM
When I was 14, the only TV in the house quit working. It was summer and there was nothing else to do, so I started pulling books off the shelves. That's when I read a number of classics that have become favorites and stayed with me all these years. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, and Richard Llewellyn's How Green Was My Valley, are two I read that summer. That's what got me started reading, and that's what got me started writing.

07-24-2006, 01:47 AM
I've had to read a lot of novels, and poetry, and plays and, worst of all, criticism and critical theory I hated for school. And I do mean a lot -- pages and pages listing works.

I figure I've compensated for a lot of people; you go right ahead and read what you want to read. Keep in mind that an awful lot of the canon, especially in terms of fiction, was not exactly revered when it was published; it was popular sure, but it certainly wasn't regarded as "litrature."

So go. Read. Enjoy. Write stuff other people will enjoy. There ought to be some payoff for me suffering through all of Smollet, James, and Cooper.

07-24-2006, 08:27 PM
I read the Catcher in the Rye because I thought I had to. It's a classic, right? Maybe somebody can tell me why it's a classic, because I am perplexed.

07-26-2006, 01:14 AM
I love the classics! I have well-worn copies of Pride & Prejudice, Jane Eyre, & even Little Women that I read over and over and over. Then, I have a pile of modern chick-lit that I've discarded halfway through because I just couldn't sympathize with the "heroine" - and I use that term loosely. So, I guess I prefer many of the classics, but I haven't given up hope on the moderns either ... despite the paperback graveyard piling up in my office.

I think it's good to have a good understanding of both ... especially if you're planning on getting published yourself.

07-26-2006, 05:39 AM
I like classics too, but reading them can sure set you up for a disappointment when you realize you can't take time building a story, setting, or a character in this day and age. It's kind of like studying nothing but silent movies to learn how to make a film now. Essential, yes, but you need to watch talkies too.

I like A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment (maybe the best novel ever written), The Three Musketeers (it's a simple adventure story, but today's simple adventure stories pale in comparison for some reason), and others. I got burned out on reading the classics for a while, and now I'm reading some anthology of SF novels by C.J. Cherryh that my brother had lying around. Not bad.

07-26-2006, 05:46 AM
Cherryh is one of my all time favorite writers.

07-26-2006, 09:00 AM
Jbal-I believe that Catcher is a classic because so many scholars consider it to be a groundbreaker. It was among the first novels that took on the topic of child neglect/child abuse, the generation gap, etc. head on.

If I remember correctly, it was first published just after WWII--so the above topics, along with the use of profanity--made it a very avant-garde read for those conservative times.

It was banned in many school districts, not only for its use of foul language, but for its subversive ideas. Much like the movie, The Graduate, Catcher bitterly exposed the hypocrisy and moral torpitude of the older generation.

Also, Holden, the narrator, is simmering with a rage that is almost palpable. His rambling narrative allows the reader to delve into the mind of a confused, angry, and emotionally unstable young man.

Salinger's use of an unreliable narrator is the epitome of "show, don't tell" for character development. The reader gets to draw his/her own uneasy conclusions about Holden's mental state and the veracity of his complaints.

Put it this way, there would be no Titanic without Romeo & Juliet, just as there would be no Outsiders without Catcher in the Rye.

Lecture over. You are dismissed. http://absolutewrite.com/forums/images/smilies/emoteLecture.gif

07-27-2006, 02:27 AM
The unreliable narrator is a good point. That was probably the biggest thing I took away from it.

07-27-2006, 12:17 PM
For a long time I was against 'the classics' and refused to read them. I had read some in school of course. The reason for my rebellion was that far too often I saw people, when asked to name a favorite author or book, recite names from the 'classics'. I felt they were saying what they thought they were supposed to say instead of what they really thought.

So that means I have not read many of these books. I have enrolled in a lit class for fall term, though, and so I will read some then I imagine. I figure the worst case scenario isthat my opinion will become informed. The truth is that books are books and I will like some and not like others.

07-27-2006, 10:27 PM
I liked Beowolf and the Canterbury Tales. Other than that...feh. Those people wrote funny back then. ;)

07-28-2006, 12:28 AM
It's like any other area of fiction - you're going to like some, and not like others. I tried to read War and Peace once, and got confused by the complicated Russian names, but I raced through The Three Musketeers and The Black Tulip by Dumas, and when I finally got round to reading - my brain's gone dead - "Cathy!" "Heathcliffe!" - that one - I recognised the plot that I'd found in many derivative romances.

07-28-2006, 02:57 AM
My favorites-- Wuthering Heights and of course, Frankenstein.

The Frankenstein movies are so different from the book. In the movies, he's a bumbling monster who can only moan displeasure. In the book, he's an intelligent if pessimistic creature who speaks French and reads philosophical books!
Damn you, Hollywood!

07-28-2006, 09:06 AM
I've mostly not read "The Classics." (How's that for a horrific grammatical construct?) I moved around a lot in high school and it seemed like every place I went, we were reading what I'd just read the year before. I went through MacBeth three times, I think.

I've never read Dickens (though I've got a couple on my shelf that I'm working on getting to), Fitzgerald or any of the Bronte sisters. I do love The Count of Monte Cristo - perhaps my favorite "old novel." I have read a number of 20th century classics, such as Animal Farm, 1984, Farenheit 451, etc.

I'm very much a modern reader, I guess. Call me a heathen ;)

07-28-2006, 03:28 PM
Troilee, trust me. Go to the Junior section of the library. You can read 'em all in a week. You can follow the story line without stopping to wonder what the heck the author was trying to say.

I read Jane Eyre and the Count of Monte Cristo in under an hour each. ;)

.....sort of like Reader's Digest Condensed Books....only a little more 'condensed'.

07-28-2006, 07:31 PM
That's a really good idea. Thanks for the suggestion! :)

07-29-2006, 02:42 AM
You're suggesting she read those summarized versions for kids? Blegh!

07-29-2006, 02:51 AM
I don't even think kids should read those summarized versions.


07-29-2006, 02:46 PM
You're suggesting she read those summarized versions for kids? Blegh!

Yep. I am. Because they're easier to read and at least they'll get read that way. Otherwise, they'd sit on the shelf and personally, I'd never read them. The archaic sentence structure in some of those works is more than a turn off. <Insert your favorite hurling smiley here>

After you've read the condensed version you can decide if the original is worth reading.

Or perhaps you'd recommend Cliff Notes? <insert 2nd favorite hurling smiley here>

If the choice is reading a junior version or not reading them at all - I say - and I stand by saying it - read the junior version. At least you can get through it without saying to yourself, 'WTF?WTF?WTF?'

07-29-2006, 08:20 PM
I "read" Wuthering Heights using the Cliff's Notes. Mostly because I only had three days before school started, and was supposed to have read it for summer reading. I got the gist of the story, and that was enough for me.

Sometimes the condensed version is worth it. You don't get the artistry of the author's language, or the full impact of descriptions, but you get the story.

High Schools still teach classics, but I don't think students have the attention span for that old language anymore. I didn't, and I'm about ten years removed from HS. Maybe I'm just weird.

I forced my way through Great Expectations and The Great Gatsby. I wanted to poke my own eyes out. Yes, I can say that I read and studied them, but I did not enjoy them. I would rather go blind than read any other books by Toni Morrison. Except for A Christmas Carol, I have never read Charles Dickens for "fun." I read the Children's Illustrated version of The Three Musketeers. I have a handful of classics on my shelves (Frankenstein, Catcher in the Rye), but if it's a choice between those and the latest Stephen King?

Guess which one I'm reading?

I really do envy those of you who can pick up a classic and read it all the way through. And actually enjoy it. I do. I wish I could do the same. But there aren't enough hours in my day to force myself to read something I don't care for, when there are dozens of books that I want to read collecting dust on my shelves.


Dan A Lewis
07-30-2006, 09:36 AM
Instead of summarized versions, ease your way into the classics with great books that are simple to read, but sink deep into your brain. A personal list comes to mind: 1984, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, The End of the Affair, the Jeeves and Wooster stories, Lord of the Rings, Things Fall Apart, etc. There's a long list.

It's not necessarily true that the older something is, the harder it is to read. It's also not necessarily true that the easier something is to read, the better it is. A Sherlock Holmes story demands much less out of its readers than Anna Karenina. I don't say that to knock Anna Karenina (one of the best things I have ever read). You may have to prepare for the Anna Kareninas by reading books that are more solid than your favorite literary junk food. My mother once told me that she borrowed a mystery novel from a friend and didn't realize until she started reading it that she had already read it once, and forgotten about it completely.

Over time you will develop reading muscles, get a sense of the way novelists in a certain time and place speak and arrange their sentences. You'll start to hear individual books talk to you in the voices of their authors. But you don't get there by starting with Shakespeare because it's good for you and calling Macbeth broccoli and pushing it away, when it's really an enormous side of beef that needs to be carved, cooked, seasoned, chewed carefully, and digested for a long time to be enjoyed.

Cliff notes: empty calories, in my opinion. And abridged digests, for a similar reason, are not taking you down the path to better reading in the future. It's dulling your palate.

07-30-2006, 03:56 PM
Times change and people change; writing styles change and reading styles change.

If the Classics are going to remain 'classic' - and part of our cultural heritage they have to be read and understood by many. In our age of instant everything - who, outside of a scholar is going to take the time and effort to read them?

I like to read; Nay, I love to read. Reading is my great passion. If I can't bear to wade through some of these books, how can you expect Josephine Average to plow through them? They won't. Unless someone makes them and very often when that someone 'makes' them, they end up hating it, not understanding the message of the book, and ignoring the rest.

Our librarians take great care in choosing good editions for our juvenile section. The ones I've read lost none of the story. Sure, the language is different but the story is there. The originals are in the adult section - sometimes people even go check those out to read them, too. If the choice is reading Jane Eyre in a translation or the latest edition of People, guess which one I'm going to recommend?

I just checked out The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The flyleaf blurb sounded interesting so I took it home. I got 30 pages into it and shut the cover and I'm sending it back. Bleh. The story sounded interesting but it took the author 30+ words to tell me he 'met her at the train station'. All 30 pages were like that. On and on and on and on. Just say it, already!

I don't believe people want to wade through and try and decipher what the author is saying. They just want to read the da** thing. If it piques their interest enough to try the original - great. If you like toothsome reading and enjoy figuring it out - great. I don't think that most people enjoy reading that way.

If they did, the classics would be flying off the shelves every week. Um. I don't see that happening - at least not where I am.

07-31-2006, 09:37 AM
I know it's silly, but every time I want to read something more modern I feel a pang of guilt, that as a writer I should finish getting grounded in the classics before I spend time reading something that might be forgotten fifty years from now. I know, it's stupid. Personally, as someone who recieved an English degree, I don't bother reading anything written before 1920.

Yes. I have read a great deal of Restoration, Enlightenment, Victorian, Romantic, and other era writing.

And, honestly, it's a stretch for me to find anything in common with protagonists or what is happening in the stories. So, reading anything before the Modern era is a waste of my time. Twain being one of, if not the only exception to this rule.

I try to stay within 10 years of right now in my readings. And if I buy a book, it has to have been published within the last 3.

You know what Twain had to say about classics? They're books no one reads anymore.

Wuthering Heights? I'd rather read A Streetcar named Desire.
Dickens? I'd rather read Palahniuk.
Turn of the Screw? I'd rather read Catcher in the Rye.

you want to write in today's market?
Read what's being written now. The past is fine. But that's already be written. What about today? Has that been written yet?

07-31-2006, 10:05 AM
Like Medievalist, I've been required to read a lot of things as part of undergraduate and graduate-level English programs. Some I knew I'd like, some I was suprised to enjoy, some were a major chore to read, and some I just couldn't quite finished, regardless of requirements. Like with everything else, tastes vary widely.

07-31-2006, 10:28 AM
I try to stay within 10 years of right now in my readings. And if I buy a book, it has to have been published within the last 3.

With the exception of genre fiction, I'm pretty much the opposite; I like the old stuff. In broad terms, the older the better.

So, yes, as Birol said, tastes vary, but the extent to which they vary is a constant source of amusement for me.

08-03-2006, 07:54 PM
To early.

08-03-2006, 07:57 PM
Wilkie Collins, Booth Tarkington and E. F. Benson are my favourites. Their books haven't seemed to age much as they rely on imagery and emotions. You might enjoy those.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins
Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

Those are my favourite books of all time!

04-29-2007, 09:55 PM
There's a place inbetween, though. It's also a matter of who's saying what's a 'classic.' Dickens? Yes: painful. Academia and publishers (who make money off book sales), one guesses, has dictated to us what is and what is not a classic. Why is Knut Hamsun not right alongside Dostoyevsky? Why is "Journey to the end of the night" not beside "Catcher?" There was a feeling I had once after having discovered what I thought were off the beaten path books (novels.) It was a feeling of discovery; this is one reason that one would choose to read things that were old, if not called 'classic' by the literary powers that be. (Of course, these discoveries could by all means be contemporary, too . . .) The first slew of these books were black sparrow and new directions books - hardly off the beaten path, exactly, but a start, and better than 'Treasure Island,' for Christ's sake. For that matter, Dawn Powell is a recent discovery for me. How come she's never taught? Petronius, "Satyricon," why is that never taught? This was written two thousand years ago by a man with a great story (life and literary), reads like it was written yesterday, and I've never seen it once on someone's book shelf. Italo Calvino - "If on a Winter's night a traveler," specifically - why did it take me reading years and years before having heard of him? I've yet to know anyone who's heard of him, muchless read him, though. I'd nominate him for 'classic' titling, but then no one would read him for fear he was boring. Everyone has numerous criteria for reading what they read, but it's sometimes strange that Jaques the Fatalist, for instance, isn't read b/c it's old. It's not a hard read, really. To go back to Hamsun, "Dreamers" & "Mysteries" are both laugh out loud because they are so absurd. Laughter doesn't age. Looking at my book collection, I may as well be a butterfly, a stamp collector. The point is that what are called classics, Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, for instance, are normally the most abbreviated, boring, turn-one-off-to-reading-the-classics book-list that one could dream up. Most of my teachers never broached this subject. I was shoved through the course with the rest of the herd: Here're the classics, most of us don't really want to read them, teacher included, but this is the way it's done. There are exceptions, though - Dostoyevsky, as always, but nevertheless, it's a matter of discovery. It takes searching and realizing that what we're told is good was for sometimes mysterious reasons - some justifiable, others not - and there are mounds of books lurking behind those that are better and more fun, because no one has read them, by and large.

04-30-2007, 05:16 AM
All of my life I've been reading -- I learned when I was three and never slowed down. Recently -- in the last year or so -- I've decided to work my way through 'the classics,' or at least books that I otherwise might not have read.

This has lead to a lot of Hemingway, Steinback, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Dumas, Nabakov, Austen, Kundera, Shakespeare, Proust... And these are just the authors I can see laying around me right now, without bothering to get up. My 'to read' list grows daily, and is rapidly approaching unmanageable.

But just last week I read Gaiman's 'American Gods' and 'Anansi Boys,' and I've also been reading a lot of poetry, some fantasy, nonfiction, books-recommended-to-me-by-mother-who-hovers-until-I-finish-them... There are more good books to be read in the world than you can finish in your lifetime, and people keep writing more. There's no real point in reading only 'the classics.'

On the other hand, as to the suggestion of reading only the condensed versions... I hated those even when I was a kid. There is more to 'the story' than the bare bones of the plot -- the best hook in the world is good writing, and good writing goes hand in hand with the language an author uses. Better to read one good book in the original than two dozen condensed down to nonsense.

05-01-2007, 01:15 PM
There are some classics I read and immediately get, some I have to work at, and some that end up back on the shelf.

When I first moved abroad I brought 'all the books I thought I should read at some point in my life' and plowed through them
Some favorites from American authors:

Dos Passos

Currently, now that I am working on my novel, I'm reading more modern works: Delillo, Pynchon, Atwood.... but have to slip in a few classics now and then. Just finished reading Zola...

05-27-2007, 06:53 AM
I don't even think kids should read those summarized versions.


Amen. There is very little in the realm of the written word that's more of a sin than introducing someone to "translated" Shakespeare.

(The only worse but that comes to mind is having a bad computer-generated voice read Shakespeare. That is as painful as the Star Wars Christmas special.)

05-27-2007, 09:22 PM
All of my life I've been reading -- I learned when I was three and never slowed down. Recently -- in the last year or so -- I've decided to work my way through 'the classics,' or at least books that I otherwise might not have read. ... There are more good books to be read in the world than you can finish in your lifetime, and people keep writing more. There's no real point in reading only 'the classics.'

This is well said. In the past couple of years, the classics part of my library has grown. I want to read more of these to see why they have stood the test of time. There are a lot of books no one will remember 50 years from now, but there are a lot of books from 50 years ago that are still read.

I read because I enjoy it. I don't want to read a condensed version to see what the story is about to make the decision about whether to read the longer version. That smacks of obligation to me and not reading for pleasure. Treating these books like an obligation and an anvil doesn't bode well to encourage anyone to read or enjoy them.

On the subject of disliked classics, has anyone else suffered through The Old Man & The Sea? The man goes fishing, catches the marlin, the fish gets eaten before he gets to dock and he goes home to dream about lions. Slow slow slow.

05-29-2007, 02:50 AM
I love the classics because many of them inspired the contemporary authors I love so much.

It also gives me a strong foundation for understanding contemporary literature. I know where it came from, so I know where it is (and can predict where it's going).

Love classics.