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