What’s a Classic Book Anyway?

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD by Thomas Hardy. Awful. Ghost Stories by M.R. James. Horrible. Both authors were, and still are in some circles, acclaimed writers. I couldn’t give a shit. That’s not me being dismissive, simply stating facts. Reading both of their books put me through a rare torture as a reader, one voluntary, the other for a school assignment years ago.

Reading through text written over a hundred years ago, is the equivalent of mental Olympics on every page, the syntax and word use so foreign to me, enjoyment of story, characters or imagery is virtually zero.

When compared to American writing of the same era, the English prose is a totally different animal; dead, the flies and maggots long gone, with nothing but quaint bones left behind, that some idiots will proclaim to be from the Juras..I mean, Classic Era of literature. Meanwhile Twain, Fitzgerald, Poe, and Lovecraft are all still highly readable and haven’t lost their magic. I think it’s a testament to the modernity of American writing while in Not So Great Britain, writing was all institutional, of the establishment, by scholarly types still caught up in being overly verbose and using entire pages to describe one thing, as the plot floundered, running out of oxygen.

It’s a shame in many ways, because it puts me off reading some of the books of yesteryear. So called classics are often like Oscar winning films: there is no guarantee of enjoyment. But that’s the way it is. I need to read more contemporary books anyway to keep up with the times. I’ve been reading dead-man-books not too much, but I need to balance it out with what’s being written today. I’m not sure where I was going with this post, but it went somewhere. I think!

9 Comments

  1. Interesting post. Like so many art forms, I think it is all about finding something you like and that resonates on some level. I recently read some Hemingway and hated his writing (nothing happened!)…I think Wuthering Heights is terrific…I love Dumas…I love Tolstoy…I love Dostoyevsky…and I recently read my first Dickens novel which was much better than expected. But I also, like you, find so many really hard work.

    1. I read The Old Man and the Sea and liked it, but like you say not much happened.
      I’ve read half of Crime and Punishment – it’s still a great read, but the characters are tough to follow only due to the unfamiliarity. I must finish it!
      But the overiding thing is like you say, whether the writing resonates or not, that’s the key. Thanks for dropping by.

  2. I am going to be the odd reader out. I have a BA in English, focus on Brit Lit. I am in love with almost every book I read. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Dracula, Frankenstein, Canterbury Tales, Beowulf … Sir Walter Scott. However, I have to admit that the few American Lit classes that I could get into were much more interesting: Flannery O’Connor, Poe, Allison, Hemingway, Platt …
    I really loved them all.

  3. I know what you mean! I studied English literature years ago at uni and we read nothing contemporary. It was a long hard slog tbh, but you can feel almost guilty for thinking (& saying!) that!

    1. I know what you mean. I think the thing is, that classic, is entirely subjective. Far From the Madding Crowd might have been an exciting read 100+ years ago but it isn’t any more, although I struggle to imagine it was ever exciting. English lit was very narrow and there weren’t that many outlets back then for publishing/ review etc, so you had a small band of people dictating what was good and what was bad. Now there’s no limits.

  4. I laughed at the first line of your blog! Just two days ago, in the grade-school English course I teach, I assigned a passage from that very book–not because I admire it, but because I have an unusually bright 10- year-old who whizzes through all the usual kid-fiction passages. Sure enough, he came back moaning and complaining how he just couldn’t get into it! Maybe we need to reevaluate our classics!

    1. Yeah maybe, I mean Hardy has no relevance in my mind to learning. Nobody enjoyed it in my class. There are thousands of superior books. I think maybe the education systems hold on to ‘classics’ because they always have?

  5. Other than the ones you mentioned above, I can’t read the classics; they bore me to tears. But they are considered “literary fiction” so don’t require any kind of plot, relying instead on how beautifully the writer writes. When I pick up a book, I’m wanting someone to tell me a story, not impress me with pages devoted to how lovey a single drop of dew is on a rose.

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