I love classics. A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that classics are my preferred genre. Some people can’t seem to fathom that I genuinely enjoy reading books like Faulkner’s Sartoris and Dickens’ Great Expectations and choose to read them in my free time. Perhaps this bewilderment is due to the bad reputation classics have gained from people’s negative experiences of being forced to read them in school. Or maybe classics have become too closely associated with the stereotypical pretentious air that some people put on when talking about this genre of literature. Whatever the reason may be, I’m here to break the barrier once and for all.
Classics don’t have to be scary, dull, or irrelevant; rather, they can be accessible, exciting, and relatable to our personal and societal experiences today. There are always going to be those books you just don’t click with (I’m sorry Bram Stoker, but I just reread Dracula and practically had to force myself to read the last hundred pages) but that doesn’t mean that the entire genre isn’t worth reading.
In an effort to spread my love of classics, here are some of my tips for reading them:
1 || Know the context. Before reading, take a few moments to research the time period and place in which the work was written as well as some information about the author. Knowing the context of a text is helpful for two reasons: a) you can better understand and relate to the characters when you know when, where, and how they are living and b) it helps explain any behaviors or beliefs that might seem odd or problematic to us today. Learning information about the author can also give us insight into why and how the text was written. For instance, while researching Faulkner I learned that he often listened to his elders tell stories about the Civil War, slavery, and his great-grandfather William Clark Falkner. The latter figure must have strongly influenced Faulkner because a similar legendary relative plays an important role in his novel Sartoris. Understanding the context of a work can make it easier to relate to the story overall.
2 || Make character maps. Wuthering Heights? The Sound and the Fury? Forget it: I would be completely lost and confused if I didn’t sketch out a character map. You can make one as you read, though I prefer to research the story ahead of time and map out the characters that way. There are countless helpful resources online that make creating character map easy and incredibly helpful. Even just writing a list of characters and some short descriptions of them can make following the story feel ten times easier.
3 || Take your time. Unless deadlines are imposed on you by others (teachers, professors, book clubs, etc.) there’s no specific point in time by which you have to read a classic. Go as slow as you need to in order to get the most out of the story, even if it takes you twice as long to finish as a different book normally would. Put it down and come back to it after a few days if you feel like you need a break or are feeling in the mood to read something else. There’s no pressure to read anything in one sitting or in a certain number of days, so don’t worry about how long it takes you to reach the final page. The more time you spend with a classic—or any book, for that matter—the more you’re likely to take away from the novel.
4 || Keep an open mind. As with anything you read, it’s important to keep an open mind that’s free from any preconceived judgments or expectations. There’s no use reading something when you already assume you’ll hate it before you even read the first page. Before starting Leo Tolstoy’s tome War and Peace I expected that it would bore me to tears; however, I was surprised to find that I actually looked forward to reading it more and more as I progressed through the novel. I know this tip probably sounds like basic common sense, but sometimes it’s helpful to be reminded of what would otherwise seem obvious. At times it can seem like classics are a genre of literature with their own rules and expectations; in actuality, they’re just like all other books!
It’s perfectly okay to not enjoy classics. I don’t go out of my way to pick up horror or paranormal novels and I don’t judge those who do. However, I do think that classics deserve a second chance.
Do you enjoy reading classics? Do you have a favorite? Did reading classics in school impact your feelings toward this genre? Let me know in the comments section below!