On Reading Classics

Up until late last year I had always felt inadequate reading classics. That means that while doing my English degree I rarely felt at ease with our assigned reading. I was made to believe that if I didn’t grasp — or even worse, if I didn’t care for — every single nuance I was simply not smart enough for them.

Reading a classic always came with a certain level of expectation that I didn’t feel reading any other genre: I apparently had to take something away from every text, and I, of course, had to have a well-developed opinion on them. To me, this certainly felt like a particular kind of gatekeeping designed to alienate readers. Fortunately, I had some positive experiences (ie. Wuthering Heights or Frankenstein, which I read while studying abroad) but generally, reading them was a chore. It didn’t help that my professors were usually quite rigid when it came to interpreting these texts, it was their way or the highway.

It wasn’t until I graduated (and finally freed myself from the deadly elitist grip of academia) that I started rethinking my opinion of classic literature. Why did I need to examine these books so critically that any enjoyment derived from them was simply impossible to attain? Why couldn’t I simply read them for pleasure? What was so horrible about missing some of their subtleties? Don’t get me wrong, I think analysing literature can be extremely fun, but on my own terms.

So, late last year, inspired by Emma I slowly started venturing into classics of my own accord. Aisling over at Aisling Hamill wrote a fantastic post touching on how any book becomes dull if reading them feels like an obligation, and that’s exactly how my reading experience has completely shifted. Since I am no longer forced to pick them up, I just read whichever one I want for my own pleasure. Which not to say that I now understand every classic, I certainly don’t (Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems I’m looking at you) but it doesn’t really bother me. I read them, enjoy them (or not), and move on. I’m placing no expectations on myself and it’s truly freeing.

In these months I’ve read some fantastic texts that I’ve adored:

Additionally, I’ve realised that there is not only one way to read classic literature. You don’t need to, for instance, suffer through a Middle English text if you don’t want to since, believe it or not, there are plenty of fantastic translations available for you, which are not any less worthy of being read. Audiobooks are also a great way to consume classics — I especially enjoy dramatised ones for Greek and Roman plays. Shaniah from Books and Baking provides a list of tips to read the classics which I totally recommend.

In conclusion, I believe that we should take the elitism out of classics and let people enjoy them however they prefer. It is normal and all right to not understand some of these books, but that shouldn’t discourage us from all of the other classics out there.

If you want to see all the classics I’ve read check out my Goodreads shelf. Or if you want to get started reading classes go visit Project Gutenberg for their immense free library.

What are your thoughts? Have you ever felt intimidated by classics? Do you usually read them? If so, what are some of your favourites?

26 thoughts on “On Reading Classics

  1. i love this post! I think the biggest reason why i enjoy reading classics is that i was never ‘forced’ to read them. required reading is a totally foreign concept for me lolol.

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  2. This was such a fun post!! I think I’ve heard so many people saying that classics are amazing (and characters from the books set in the 19th/20th century keep referencing them) so I picked up classics. The language, like you mentioned, is definitely a fall-back for there are often archaic and/or outdated terms but it’s always fun to read them (they aren’t classics for nothing!) I’m definitely adding some of these to my (well, neverending) TBR pile!! Great post 😉

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  3. I loved this post! I’ve always loved classics simply because I’ve grown up reading them. I was never encouraged to read them (we had to read a couple in school) and I feel like it was the complete opposite for me in that everyone in my class thought it was uncool, boring and a waste of time to read them so that then made me want to read them more. Hope that makes sense! I’m so glad you’re finding a new love for classics outside of academia x

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  4. I completely agree with you! I was deterred from reading classics for years due to the misery of being forced to study them at school and also not feeling intelligent enough. I only started to explore classics a couple of years ago and found that they can be so much fun. Like any other genre, it’s about finding the ones that match your personal tastes. I’ve read many that I didn’t enjoy but there have been just as many that I’ve loved. I think when you remove the obligation to study and scrutinise them and just have fun with it, classics can be so much fun. This is an insightful post! I’ve actually been working on developing my own series on the topic of breaking into classics as someone that used to strongly dislike them, so I look forward to contributing to this discussion 😊

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  5. This is a great post with so much clarity, I love it! I totally agree that you don’t have to pick up on all the subtleties in a classic to be able to enjoy it! Plus, I especially like how you’ve mentioned that there are different ways to consume classics and some might be more suitable than others depending on the reader.
    I’ve definitely felt intimidated by classics in the past – well, to be honest, I still am – but I am slowly moving past that and will occasionally pick one up. I’ve enjoyed the few Jane Austens that I’ve read and also Frankenstein and The Great Gatsby!

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