Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

A shelf of Great Books.

Ever since I learned to read at the relatively late age of 6, books and I have been inseparable. I’ve read 944 books since I started tracking about ten years ago, and I read more often and more extensively than almost anyone I know who is not required to read as part of their job.

I read fiction and nonfiction; I read novels, short stories, and comics; I read books for children and for adults (and for everyone); I’ve tried most genres (but strongly prefer speculative fiction); I can also read in Russian (but rarely do, because I’m too slow at it to satisfy my own impatient curiosity); I’ve read works in translation from French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, and Yiddish (and have many others I still want to try); i do, however, have one glaring fault as a reader: I have a very hard time with most of what could be considered Good Literature, and a resulting insecurity about my ability to grapple with difficult (fictional) texts.

It would be tempting for someone with my set of political beliefs to write off the entire idea of Good Literature, of classics. I do think that the way we determine what’s Good and what Isn’t is deeply flawed and subject to our own biases, just like everything else we do. The reason it looks like a bunch of white Western men certainly isn’t because nobody else ever wrote anything of value (although they probably didn’t do as much of it as they do now, because access).

But I don’t believe that there’s no distinction between literature that has something complex and important to say about our world and ourselves, and literature that doesn’t, not because it’s Bad but because that’s just not its purpose. Even as a teenager I recognized that there was a difference between the pleasure I got from reading The Catcher in the Rye and the pleasure I got from reading the Gossip Girl books. Yet I read both, and loved both.

I also think there’s a difference between literature that fades from memory once it goes out of style, and literature that stands the test of time and is called “classic” for that reason. Those Gossip Girl books are already almost forgotten, but Harry Potter hasn’t been and probably won’t be for a very long time. Those of us who lived through the anticipation and the midnight release parties and the fanfiction got to witness the birth of a classic. That’s one of the most incredible literary experiences I’ve ever had.

And yet, actually reading classics–not of the Harry Potter variety–is something I have a very hard time convincing myself to do. All the classics I’ve read were either required for a class (to be fair, some of those were college classes I chose to take) or strongly suggested by my parents in a way that made me want to just get it over with.

With a few exceptions, such as the works of Kurt Vonnegut, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Vladimir Nabokov, and J.D. Salinger, I couldn’t stand most of these books. I especially hated Grapes of Wrath, An American Tragedy, The Jungle, A Farewell to Arms, and every single Dickens book I ever picked up. I couldn’t get more than a chapter into Three Musketeers and hated all the excerpts of Moby Dick I had to read in English class (thankfully they didn’t make us read the whole book).

Some of these I’m convinced are just really bad writing (Dickens comes to mind). But I also think that a big part of the problem was my own failure to grasp the writer’s intent or find any other reason for that book to exist. What’s this trying to tell me? Why was this written? I’m a writer, so I know how much blood, sweat, and tears must’ve gone into these books. What made that effort worth it? These were questions I couldn’t answer.

And yes, there’s no Correct Answer there. That’s not the point. The point is I couldn’t think of any answer at all.

I started thinking back to my high school English classes, which were formative in many ways. My teachers were great when it came to encouraging enthusiasm for literature, but they were ultimately stuck in the framework that most high school English classes use: assigning books and then testing us on our understanding of the plot, the overall themes, the new vocabulary words, and, of course, what all the symbols meant. (You can imagine the authors rolling in their graves.) We never really learned how to think about the bigger questions: what do you think the author was trying to do with this book? How well did they do it? What could they have done better? If you didn’t know who wrote this book, what clues might help you guess? How is the author’s perspective informed or limited by their social position? What did you get out of reading this book? How did it change you?

I got to college hoping for some better instruction in critical reading, but “instruction” was mostly lacking at Northwestern, which is a research institution where undergrads are an afterthought. Professors expected us to already be able to do the kind of analysis they made their careers on, and I had no idea what that was. I got A’s in those classes mainly because nobody else could really do much better than me, and none of us knew what we were doing.

Most of what I know about literature comes from discussions with my parents and from reading other people’s essays about literature in magazines or online. My parents had a very different experience with books; they say that they were never taught to think about literature in school either, but only because in the Soviet Union, the skill of analyzing and critiquing books was something you just absorbed from your surrounding culture. They learned it the way children learn to speak. They can impart some of that to me by doing it with me, but they can’t teach it because they were never formally “taught.”

So, in short, I’m on my own. I don’t like feeling like I missed out on learning an entire mode of thinking that could help me appreciate even more books than I already do, so I’m going to teach it to myself, using this blog and the books themselves.

My idea is to choose classics that I consider challenging and read them chapter-by-chapter, posting my thoughts on each chapter as a blog post. I won’t limit myself to “analyzing” them in a particular way; I expect that I’ll blend thoughts about writing style, authorial intent, philosophy, and social criticism with my own ramblings about the characters and their annoying flaws and my frustration with the bad decisions everyone is making. (So many bad decisions. No, don’t go fight in the war, wars are bad. She’s not interested in you, dude. You probably should not talk to your kid that way. Stop arguing over this petty bullshit.)

To make things a little more interesting, I’ll open up the comments on those posts (and on this one) so folks can read along and join the discussion. Keep in mind though that all the reasons I closed comments still absolutely apply, so please do me a huge favor and focus your comments on your experience with the book and your thoughts about it rather than on criticizing and nitpicking my experiences.

I don’t have any sort of real process for choosing books right now other than “things my parents think I would benefit from reading,” so my first book will be Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. Others I may read include Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice and Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’d like to suggest books, feel free to do so in the comments of this post. I’m looking for stuff that’s classic and challenging, but not impenetrable. (If you’re wondering what I’d categorize as impenetrable, I’d say probably something like Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which I got approximately nothing out of.)

I’m calling this a book club because that’s the closest term I can think of for what I’m going to do, but it very well might end up being a book club of just one and that’s totally fine. I wish it were easier to discuss books with friends, but the reality is that most people in my social circle who enjoy reading do not prioritize it and do it rarely. That’s something I hope will change as I get older or meet new people.

I do hope that this encourages at least a few people to read some new books. If you have a hard time motivating yourself to read, I put together this list of suggestions last year.

Hopefully I’ll start yelling about Brideshead Revisited by next week at the latest, but knowing myself, I can’t make any promises.


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Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

19 thoughts on “Thoughts on Reading Classics + Book Club!

  1. 1

    Law school zapped my reading ability. Before that, I read quite a few books. Huckleberry Finn will always stand out to me – it was the first book that really showed me the beauty and diversity of language.

  2. 2

    I want to nominate Villette by Charlotte Brontë! I also want to nominate The Brother’s Karamazov (translated into English) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky!

    This sounds really fun and it will help you with your writing too!

  3. 3

    Awesome!

    Something that I’ve found useful to keep in mind when reading “classics” is the difference between books that were originally written and published as popular entertainment, and which happen to have “stood the test of time,” and those that were written as Very Serious Books. *The Three Musketeers* was published in serial form, written under intense deadline pressure, and was enthusiastically received as an edge-of-your-seat adventure romp. *Moby Dick* was a Big Serious Book About Deep Themes And Stuff from day one. I try to read the two “genres” differently — they reward different kinds of reading, because they’re meant to.

    (It’s also a handy guide to when to give up on a book: if I can’t “find the fun” in something that’s chiefly intended to be fun to read… I stop. Victorian Londoners may have been on tenterhooks awaiting the next installment of *Oliver Twist*, but there’s no reason that I have to be.)

    Of course, Mann’s *Doctor Faustus* is one of my favorite books EVAH, so I may not be exactly normal. 🙂 But if you’re interested in giving Mann another go, I’d suggest the short story “Tonio Kroger” over “Death in Venice.” (Both are stories that appear in the collection *Death in Venice and Other Stories*, so if you’ve got DiV, you’ve probably got TK as well.)

    I’ve never read *Brideshead Revisited*, but I’m sure I’ve got a copy around here somewhere; I’ll have to give it a try!

  4. 4

    I love books of all sorts (“junk”, Literature, everything in between) but since you asked for classics here are some of my favorites:
    – Madame Bovary (in translation)
    -A Prayer for Owen Meany
    -Wuthering Heights
    -Jane Eyre
    I think the only English class at NU that I loved for both reading material and discussion/analysis was the one on Victorian detective/mystery novels. Do those count as Real Literature? Because if so, add the Sherlock Holmes stories to my list above 🙂

    1. 4.1

      Thanks for the recommendations! I read Jane Eyre ages ago and barely remember anything at all, but I really want to reread it now that I’ve read this excellent article that mentions it.

      Sherlock Holmes definitely counts; the only reason I’m not going to do it for this project is because I read those stories fairly recently (and loved them). 🙂

  5. 5

    I think Dickens is the literary equivalent of cilantro. People seem to either think he’s one of the greatest things to ever happen to English literature, or he’s unreadable garbage. I happen to fall on your side of that divide. And I gave him chance after chance, under the assumption that being forced to Great Expectations in the 8th grade soured me unjustifiably against him. About 5 years ago, I forced my way through Oliver Twist, Bleak House, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities all within a space of a few months. I wish I had those hours back.

    On the other hand, I love The Grapes of Wrath. Though not as much as East of Eden, which is pretty much my favorite novel of all time. It’s only close rival is LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.

  6. 6

    I have a similar dislike of many classics, for some similar reasons, some that are different (when my tiny local library ran out of children’s books I hadn’t read, a librarian pressed Jane Eyre into my 11 year old hands, with no instruction or context–didn’t go well). I have a particularly strong dislike for the early days of the novel (1800s ish), while more modern classics I do better with.

    Of course, I have since made my primary partner a literature PhD whose area of focus was Gothic literature… so a subgenre borne in the exact era I hate. He’s a victorian scholar through and through… the man LOVES Dickens.

    Through conversations with him, I’ve come to the conclusion that my dislike of these novels is at least in part a result of a lack of proper context given to them by my various teachers over the years. I realize the reason I learned to love many of the more modern classics (Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, even that asshole Hemingway) was because I took them as part of a course that put them properly in their historical context. We TALKED about Fitzgerald and Hemingway being arrogant drunken asshole misogynists, which made it easier, somehow, to appreciate the beautiful things they did accomplish with language and narrative.

    Dickens, in particular, is I think so inaccessible because people so revere him as a writer of Great Literature that students rarely hear the more interesting message, which is that he wrote POPULAR narrative works that served as SOCIAL CRITICISM. Holy shit that’s cool. I would have tried a hell of a lot harder to appreciate him if anyone had discussed him with me that way, instead of just saying that we HAD to read him, because “classics”.

    Anyhow, all of that is to say, I think this is a great project, and I hope to find the time to read along with you.

  7. 7

    Dickens-wise, I have fond memories of Bleak House, although that might just be because my mom and I would curl up in a blanket and read it out loud together. Nonexistent god only knows I haven’t made it through any other Dickens books.

    I also enjoyed reading Les Miserables – just keep in mind that it’s perfectly acceptable to skim past chapters at a time. Hugo was paid by the word, and it shows. (Lengthy and mostly-irrelevant digression on the Battle of Waterloo, anyone?) But it’s definitely worth a read.

    1. 7.1

      That’s what deterred me from reading Les Miserables, though I think I’d enjoy it otherwise. Hopefully if I do read it, it’ll be easy to tell which parts are skippable.

      1. I enjoyed the “flavor” chapters, but they are quite skipable from a plot perspective. My recollection is that it’s usually less “page of plot – page of filler” and more “here is my 50 page opinion piece about the last 50 years of French history” and then “here is a chapter of plot.”

        I mean, 15 years after reading it it’s the weird diversions that I remember better than the actual plot and characters, but I guess I’m unusual in that way 🙂

  8. 8

    I don’t read a lot of classic liturature, but I loved The Razors Edge in college and I loved Larry. I reread it recently, and I still loved it, but I no longer love larry. That would be my sugestion.

  9. 10

    I really liked A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. I have seen the movie, but not a live production. I hope you enjoy it too, and hope you get to read it aloud with a partner or (better yet) partners and friends.

    Will you be reading verse as part of this project too?

  10. 11

    I have a lot of sympathy with this. Life is too short to waste valuable book reading time on ‘ought to read’s that you don’t get anything out of. I studied Medieval and Renaissance English at uni because I knew there were no bloody novels that early (nobody warned me about novel length, ‘spiritual’ poems – fuck off Edmund Spenser – but I survived and at least I dodged Dickens, and that goes double for Conrad).

    I have got so much more out of reading ‘classics’ that I came to in my own time. My standard rec for an intelligent reader who wants a different perspective on the times is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford. One, it is very short and a quick read. Two, it can be taken on various levels depending on taste. It is surface value C19th melodrama in a small, provincial town. Look deeper and it is a study in mortality: this is C19th England and death is everywhere. It is also a social satire holding a mirror up to a very broken system. It also champions the crucial importance of kindness and generosity of spirit. But above all of that you should give it a try because it is a novel about the women’s world, moreover all those women who were never the heroines of their own story. The ones who don’t marry fine gentlemen and life happily ever after.

    Also a good read when trying to get enthused for novels is Bendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. It’s actually an autobiography. It’s a very important queer text too. The section when he’s on remand, a teenager in an adult prison, locked up for hours every day and more on Sundays, with only books to keep him from dark depression is amazing. That’s where I picked up Cranford from. The amount of humour and satire that working class, Irish kid got out of a book about elderly ladies obsessed with gentility was amazing.

    Good luck!

  11. 12

    You’re in my wheelhouse here, because I teach this stuff. If you’re interested in speculative fiction, I’d suggest going back and uncovering its roots in the 19th century. Definitely you should read Frankenstein — the writing isn’t necessarily fantastic, but it’s arguable the very first work of sf and one of the first works of horror — two major genres that were essentially invented by an 18-year-old girl. It’s also easy to interpret from any number of critical angles.

    Read Goblin Market too — it’s fairly quick, and I tell my students you can interpret it as Christian symbolism, AND a lesbian sex poem, both at the same time!

    If you like Tolkien at all, it’s interesting to read what he read — not just things Lord Dunsany and Eddison, but also Beowulf and Chaucer. Keats is pretty amazing, and if you like him you might like Tennyson.

    Oscar Wilde is fun.

    The thing that makes Dickens fun, as Kealy Chaisson said, is that he was absolutely a Victorian SJW. I get students to read Hard Times by telling them it’s the shortest of his novels, but the real reason is that the villains might as well have “Republican Party” branded across their foreheads. In fact, the main villain makes a pretty good stand-in for a contemporary businessman-turned-politician.

  12. 13

    *&%?%

    I wrote a really long post about books but forgot to log in first. S0 when I tried to post it, I was accused of being an imposter and lost all the text.

    So, recommendations first (that way, if I get bored of retyping things, I give up on the anti-recommendations, which are probably less useful!).

    Seconding Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Gaskell. I got a copy of Jane Eyre for my 9th birthday and have loved it ever since. Every time I re-read it, I get something new from it, and I love her impassioned plea for Victorian women to have a life of intellectual stimulation too. Elizabeth Gaskell, I discovered via the BBC adaptation of Cranford, with the wonderful Judi Dench, but then I subsequently also read Mary Barton and Wives and Daughters – I was amazed by the social commentary in there (looking at my reviews to see which titles I was thinking of, I noted that I was quite happy reading W&D a short segment at a time, until I suddenly got part way through and got so thoroughly hooked that I did what must have been a solid 8 hours reading, finally finishing at 4.15 in the morning, on a day I had to go to work!) I definitely want to read her North and South, so if you end up picking that one, you’ll have at least 1 co-reader. And I’d love more people to read Anne Bronte – I think she’s undeservedly neglected in favour of what I believe to be her less talented sister, Emily. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is so delicately crafted, and again comes with a huge, unexpected helping of social justice.

    As for Dickens, I feel like I would like him more now, but I can’t quite bring myself to read them yet. My rather forward-thinking godfather decided the best present he could give a new baby as a christening gift was the complete works of Dickens, in 40-50 volumes of green leather bound books. They looked gorgeous on the shelf, and I was about 11 when I realised they were my books, not my mother’s stored in my room for reasons of space, so I did what any vociferous but misguided child bookworm would do, and decided to start at one end of the shelf and work my way along. Obviously, the wise thing would have been to ask someone which books I was most likely to enjoy at that age, but I made it about a third of the way along, until I hit Barnaby Rudge and that beat me. Somehow I got 3/4 of the way through it, which meant I got to the end of volume 1, not caring about any of the characters, or having worked out the point of the plot, and still picked up volume 2 out of stubborness. Eventually, I realised I was reading anything but Barnaby Rudge, and I hadn’t read any in 6 months, and couldn’t remember enough to pick up where I left off. I haven’t read any Dickens since!

    And I find Thomas Hardy tries to deal with social issues, but I find myself unable to really believe in his female characters, which is a bit of a bar for me.

  13. 14

    Yeah, I’m not a huge Dickens fan either. You can really tell he was paid by the word…

    Classics I would recommend? Hmm… that’s a hard one. I read loads back in the day when a British publisher was doing classics in paperback for 99p, but virtually none of them have stuck in my mind. I quite liked Frankenstein, and am also a fan of Edgar Allen Poe. I also like Kipling’s Stalky & Co, Jungle Book, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and Just So Stories (although obviously quite racist/classist so bear that in mind). I also like Kafka’s Metamorphosis, but I think you either like his style or you don’t so YMMV.

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