As graduate school was winding down for me, all of a sudden I had time again for real hobbies. By real hobbies, I mean projects that needed brain space over time instead of binging on pogo games on a Sunday night during the semester after 7-8 hours of schoolwork.
Note: Not hating on Pogo. If I ever have another four year stress-fest in my life I am going to renew my subscription.
Over breaks sometimes I would read The New Yorker (easy to hold on a pool float) or Nero Wolfe novels for their digestible chunks. But I really couldn’t get focused on and motivated for something for fun that required more commitment than a few days.
But then, on my full time pre-doctoral internship, I had time to myself after work that I had not had in years. I was working one job full time, but did not have class to work on or a second job, save for dissertation revisions which were done in halting chunks, as I would wait for my committee to provide feedback.
I had forgotten how to use that time. I have never been huge on tv and movies and I didn’t exactly have the budget or space for real crafting (although I did also teach myself to knit that year). No husband or children yet. So I decided to become well-read.
I wanted to have something to say when I was with well-educated people and understand broader cultural references and influences on the modern world.
Yeah, I have always been just this thrilling. Ha.
I am assuming someone else who is looking to start reading classics will have similar motives. Let me know if yours are different.
Where does one start on such an undertaking? Mostly my previous exposure to classics was in high school. While I respect the effort that my high school made to educate me on our cultural foundations, I did not have the life experience or formal education to really enjoy them. Case in point: I read Pride and Prejudice at fourteen for my summer reading challenge but absolutely did not enjoy it at the time. Fast forward twenty years and it is one of my favorite books.
Classics can be difficult to get into because they were written to educate and make social commentary in a different social context as well as entertain. Popular books today can be educative and make commentary as well, but usually it is in our modern context, and I personally feel that the entertainment value is prioritized more in today’s popular books. That is my layman’s opinion, anyway.
I think a classic chosen to try to get into the genre needs to be action packed with relatable themes, sans laborious description of setting and character (was nervous about the possible laborious descriptive passages at first), popularly referenced in our culture (I personally very much enjoy the moment of finally understanding the cultural reference), and a good movie to go with it. BBC mini-series versions are great because they really hold true to the work. My husband is actually trying to get into classics right now and started with listening to the Librivox recording of the Portrait of Dorian Gray, which I have not actually read myself. He made it through, but he often complained that there were spots where there was a lot of narration that did not necessarily move the plot forward. He did enjoy Wilde’s social commentary, however. He did not feel that the voice chosen for Dorian really reflected his bad-*ss nature. But I digress.
To get into classics, I would recommend starting with (in no particular order):
- Great Expectations, Charles Dickens Action: Great Expectations immediately starts with action. Stuff is going on. Pip encounters an outlaw in a graveyard in the marshes in Kent. It does not start out with copious description or backstory. I recently read Mysteries of Udolpho and that started with so much backstory and description I would never recommend it as a starter for reading Gothic literature. There are also appreciable surprises and plot twists and the common theme of social standing and ascending in the world.
Popular references today: For years, I was curious about Ms. Havisham (she was even in one of my Psychology textbooks) and Pip, Pip being at times a character on the show South Park. What was so remarkable about these characters from 1861 that they are still around over two hundred years later? I am not going to say, by the way, because a spoiler probably won’t motivate you to pick it up. If it would you can find them elsewhere.
Movie: I could barely find the Wikipedia article on the novel for all the entries on the film adaptations. Sufficient movie after the book gratification here.
2. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
Action: This novel actually involves two stories, one with Anna and one with Konstantin and Kitty. The less popular second story was equally as good as Anna’s in my opinion. This book also starts with action, a discovery of an affair in one of the families chronicled in the novel, and deals with the conflict and angst of infidelity in general. The less popular story with Kitty has less tension but helped to provide more contextual information for the times. I found Tolstoy’s style very readable and straightforward.
Popular references today: Oprah pulled this novel into her book club in 2004. Whatever your opinion may be of her club and taste, the book was pulled more into my purview with this event. I enjoyed some of her books, such as A Lesson Before Dying.
Movies: Again, tons of movies. I did not like the one with Greta Garbo, I think the 1935 version. I have not seen the 2000 mini-series by the BBC but I bet it’s worth it.
- The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
Action: A ship pulls into port and the main character has been given some assignments by the now dead Captain during the voyage. He is planning to marry his fiancé in a few days. This book is classified as an adventure novel and it absolutely is an adventure. Also, who doesn’t love a good tale of revenge and overcoming unfortunate circumstances?
Popular references: They talk about this book briefly in The Shawshank Redemption. Critics have noted in the past that the book is a fixture in Western literature. There was a version of the Count of Monte Cristo in an episode of Garfield and Friends. Seriously.
Movies: Awesome 2002 movie that I watched before I read the book. Also it seems to have led to many tv miniseries cross culturally. To me, a good indicator that the plot is relatable.
4. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Action: I am not as wholehearted on this recommendation as I was the other three, namely because I almost gave up on it and I understand how people loathe this book. I got caught up in wanting to know the end. I also worry about if people find that story to be a demonstration of what true love is meant to be. There’s my fair warning. This book opens with a traveler coming upon a confusing household and a ghost story. I admire Bronte for starting with the end as a technique. I always admire a book where one knows the ending but that does not stop them from getting consumed in the journey of the story. I don’t like what happens, but the action held me.
Popular references: I had heard mentions of Cathy and Heathcliff throughout my life before I actually committed myself to the novel. It comes up often in Twilight, which makes sense because both sets of relationships mentioned have significant dark aspects, although Wuthering Heights is much more abusive and unhealthy. Wikipedia has an entirely separate page for Wuthering Heights references.
Movie: I watched the 2009 miniseries on Netflix. MTV did a modern adaptation as well, but it wasn’t highly rated on IMDb. Movie goodness.
These books are long. Maybe at parts I would also recommend taking breaks with a book from a genre that you more typically read. I have been serious about becoming well-read for eight years now and I still like breaks of more familiar material that does not require as much work to understand/tackle.
And, my husband has Great Expectations next on his Librivox app. He initially searched for it under Good Expectations and then laughed at himself.
I am planning a post about what books to not start with to get into classics.
Does anyone have any additions to make to this list? Agree/Disagree? Other motives for tackling the classics on your own time? Please leave a comment below.