Oh duty, why hast thou not the visage of a sweetie or a cutie? David Hume
While I was at University I set myself upon the literary quest of reading all the classics. This must have been quite early in my tertiary education because, looking back on it now, it is such a naive task that i can’t imagine starting out on it now without at least wearing some kind of ironic hat or something. Nevertheless, it is an interesting undertaking and my own little attempt at lifelong education.
Little did I know it would be so lifelong! The term ‘literary classic’ has become completely uninformative, with, by my calculations, about four all-time classics of literature being published each week this year. To counteract the insidious marketing tactics of modern publishers I’ve stuck to the more aged classics which have had a little more time to cement their place in history. If I ever make it to modernity I’ll tackle the list of Booker and Pulitzer winners perhaps.
The most consistent initial experience I’ve had when delving into any classic is the feeling that it was hard work and that maybe I’d rather be watching television. Books these days are written to grab you from the first sentence and not let go, which has resulted in the phenomenon of all-nighter book binges and cover-to-cover vanishing acts by readers. The classics demand slow digestion and often seem to be written in a way that seems like an attempt to destroy your brain’s very structure. They take a long time to read. Invariably though, after a hundred pages or so, I get into them. This impenetrability is no doubt a combination of antiquated writing styles and vocabulary, and the fact that many of these are classics because of the writing style, and a unique style often takes some time to adjust to.
Don Quixote was like this for me. I read it while travelling around Europe and found the first third infuriating. Luckily, long travel times and periodic episodes of being stranded in the French Alps forced me to persist. By the end I could barely read a paragraph without bursting out laughing, the accumulation of ridicule over the length of what is a very long book, combined with the ornate language and stylised expression made it the funniest reading experience I’ve had. I’m very glad I read it, but then again, my experience of Catch 22 was identical and yet far more concentrated and less time consuming. I’ve never been so close to throwing away a book as I was after twenty pages of Joseph Heller’s classic, but then my brain’s defences surrendered to his stylistic attack and I laughed my head off… ha ha bonk.
Perhaps reading more recent works allows you to piggy-back off the modern authors who have put in the hard work of reading the classics and integrated them into their own. Reading classic after classic definitely seems like a masochistic act (or one of pure snobbery), interspersing some lighter reading is essential I think.
Not all classics are like this though. The Count of Monte Cristo is much more plot-centric and provided me with hours of entertainment ( I read it in Europe also, in far less time). However, it is probably conspicuous for this reason, and if written now would perhaps fail to stand out from the Cussler/Ludlumesque brigade?
As a general rule, the classics are classic because they make a good attempt at tackling lasting issues of humanity. I think this makes many of them well worth reading. As a philosophy student I loved reading Anna Karenina, as much for the sub-plot as anything, as Tolstoy’s own philosophical dilemmas were acted out on the page by the character of Levin. Some of this book was a trial, some of it wonderful, but the end result was that I was very glad that I read it.
Moby Dick I found hard work for large passages of the book, but other passages were enthralling. Despite being bewildered at times, the blurb on the back said it was ‘the greatest book written by an American’ so I had to persist. Upon finishing it I felt a sense of achievement but perhaps a little like I had too puny an intellect to really grasp the greatness of the text. Then I read the introduction, written by a literary scholar, and everything fell into place. The very scope of the work really hit me (with the help of the wizened scholar) and I was able to look again at the blurb on the back and think that maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish claim after all. War and Peace was as much of a trial (though slightly longer with several hung juries and annulments perhaps), and to be honest it is a hugely impressive achievement, but I wasn’t convinced that Tolstoy’s agenda was as profound as I’d hoped. Crime and Punishment was both profound and impressive from a literary point of view. I’ve heard it said that the Dostoyevsky vs Tolstoy dichotomy is one of those ‘you’re either one or the other’ categorizations, but I must say I loved Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment equally but for very different reasons.
I could go on about other experiences of reading classics but I’d risk this post becoming as much of a trial as the subject matter. The classics are hard work but I think that it is usually worth the effort. But maybe I have to say that; once you’ve put a lot of effort into something it is quite hard to admit that it was all a waste of time. I realise this undertaking of mine is far from unique and I’d love to hear some of the experiences others have had reading the classics. Do people think they are worth the effort, or just the domain of scholars and literary snobs? Which ones have you triead and failed at? My nemesis remains Ulysses, one day…