Monday, August 8, 2016

how to: learn to love classics

We've all been there: you're going through your bookshelf, and you glance at those few, leatherbound classics that you've had for years. The thought goes through your mind: I should finally read those? And become, like, cultured? And a better citizen probably? But then you pull out those few leatherbound books, read a couple pages, and are instantly bored. Then you think, WHY can I not do this? If everyone else in the world loves Jane Austen, why don't you?

Well, I am here to help. I don't consider myself particularly well-read, but I am almost done with a double degree in English literature, so I have dabbled in many different time periods and mediums of classic literature. So I can definitively share with you these few secrets, if you want to get into a classic or two without wanting to rip your face off from boredom.

1. The newer, the better. The word "classic" has all sorts of ambiguity to it, and there isn't really a hard line where classics end and contemporary or modern begins. So my advice to the reluctant classic reader is this: start as late as possible. Pick up The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (still living!), The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon, or Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. These types of books are classics in their longevity without the confusion antiquated language, practices, or cultural references. "Classic" books from the 20's-50's, and even, in some cases, up the the 90's, are way easier to understand than books from the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries.

2. Try a new form. If you've struck out with classic novels, I have good news for you! The classics are not comprised of just novels! There are many different forms that you can enjoy a classic in. If classic novels aren't for you, you could try epistolary novels, such as The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster or The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. Or maybe you'd like books of poetry, such as Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, Ariel by Sylvia Plath, or Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara. Perhaps plays are for you! There is anything from the ancient works of Aeschylus, such as The Orestia, all the way to Death of A Salesman, by the more modern Arthur Miller, or Tom Stoppard's mathematical play Arcadia. There is also epic poetry, like Homer's Odyssey, Beowulf, or Gilgamesh. Or even short stories, such as Faulkner's collection called Go Down Moses, Flannery O'Connor's collection A Good Man is Hard To Find, or Hemingway's Hills Like White Elephants. The list goes on!

3. Branch out from your high school summer reading. I swear, when I was in high school, I remember thinking that I was going to claw my eyes out if I had to read another book by a dead white guy. But when I got to college, my eyes were opened to a whole new world. I started reading books by people who were not American or English! I started reading books written by women! I started realizing that classic literature can be amazingly diverse, if you dig a little to find it. So if you're discouraged because you can't relate to anything that is on your reading list, never fear! There is someone out there for you! Looking to get real about living as a POC in past America? Try Gwendoline Brooks or Charles McKay! Looking for LGBT+ writers who aren't defined by their sexuality? Try Frank O'Hara, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf or, hell, take a close look at Shakespeare's sonnets! Looking for books about POC women, written by badass women? Try Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, or Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Point being, there are so many awesome writers out there for those of you who are bored by straight white male POVs.

4. Genres! Have you tried classic sci-fi? fantasy? mystery? there is something out there for you. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is one of the earliest and longest lasting sci-fi novels, and Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are also well-known pioneers of the genre. As for fantasy, there are examples lasting back centuries, to the stories of King Arthur and Gawain and the Green Knight, going up to Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle, P.L. Traver's Mary Poppins, and of course, the Narnia and Lord of the Rings books by Lewis and Tolkein, respectively. Mystery and action is also abundant, in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White or The Moonstone, and in Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers or The Count of Monte Cristo.

5. If all else fails, watch the movie first? If you're really determined to read a classic like Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations, sometimes watching the movie or miniseries before you read the book can actually be helpful. I would never normally recommend this, but if you are truly struggling to follow the plot, watching the movie can help clear up plot and character confusions, and leave you to focus on the meat of the story. I personally did this when I read Anna Karenina, because I was so lost when I first started reading that one! Watching the movie helped me understand what was going on, and then I was able to recognize the beauty of the writing and the strength of the characters easily.

6. Caroline's List of Classics for Reluctant Readers

(listed in this post)
1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood 
2. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
3. The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster
4.  The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
5. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
6. Ariel by Sylvia Plath
7. Lunch Poems by Frank O'Hara
8. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
9. The Oresteia by Aeschylus
10. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
11. Arcadia by Tom Stoppard
12. The Odyssey by Homer
13. Beowulf
14. The Epic of Gilgamesh
15. Go Down Moses by William Faulkner
16. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O'Connor
17. A Street in Bronzeville by Gwendoline Brooks
18. Collected Poems by Charles McKay
19. Room with a View by E.M. Forster
20. Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
21. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs
22. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
23. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
24. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
25. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
26. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
27. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle
28. Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
29. The Three Musketeers/The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandra Dumas
30. A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

(not on this list)
1. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
2. The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
3. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
4. Much Ado About Nothing by Shakespeare
5. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
6. Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
7. Animal Farm by George Orwell
8. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
9. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgsen Burnett
10.  A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith
11. The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
12. The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emmuska Orczy
13. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
14. The Stranger by Albert Camus
15. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
16. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
17. A Separate Peace by John Knowles
18. Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
19. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams
20. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
21. Evelina by Frances Burney
22. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
23. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

I hope this helped you if you want to get into classics but don't know where to start!


1 comment:

  1. This is a great post and introduction for someone who wants to try out the classics! Sometimes the classics can seem scary, overwhelming, or even boring, but there's something out there for everyone! I especially like your suggestion of more modern classics. My favorite classics are Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind - both are quite long, but I think they are very readable and approachable.


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