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!