I don’t think anyone should read the classics just so they can say they’ve “read the classics”. Sometimes books are glorified and lionised for reasons other than readability. Take Moby Dick, for instance: it’s a fascinating book, one worth reading and understanding from an academic standpoint, but that doesn’t make it an enjoyable reading experience for most booklovers. Earlier this year, I talked about how to read more classic books, and I still think that’s a laudable goal… but consider this post the counterpoint, a list of classic books you can skip reading (and some suggestions as to what you can read instead).
Don’t Read: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Read Instead: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos
If you’ve followed Keeping Up With The Penguins for a while, you had to know this would be the first cab off the rank. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I hated The Great Gatsby, and if anything my distaste for it has only grown over time. I have no idea why it’s so popular, especially in high-school reading lists. A privileged white guy discovers it’s fun to have money and party with pretty girls, then his friend dies and nobody comes to the funeral – smh. Maybe it was a revelation for some, but certainly not for me. I found Gentlemen Prefer Blondes superior in just about every way. First, it was funny. Second, it was incredibly insightful. Third, it privileged the voices of characters that Fitzgerald mercilessly marginalised (i.e., women). Trust me, you’ll have way more fun reading about Lorelei’s adventures in love and high society than you will reading about Gatsby borderline-stalking his married ex-girlfriend.
Don’t Read: The Adventures Of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Read Instead: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
When I read The Adventures Of Augie March, I could tell straight away that Bellow owed a huge debt to Dickens in general, and to David Copperfield in particular. Bellow basically took Dickens’ style of storytelling and transplanted it into 1920s Chicago. I don’t think he did a great job of it, though. Augie is barely a character, he has no agency in his own life, and any other character you might actually care about only appears for a page or two. David Copperfield, on the other hand, was full of fun and intrigue and heartbreak and glory; Dickens was the master of writing books that had something for everyone, and writers like Bellow tackle that legacy at their own peril. When in doubt, go for the OG.
Don’t Read: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Read Instead: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
I love the story of how Ray Bradbury came to write Fahrenheit 451. He found a library that would let him use a typewriter for 10c per hour, and he got to work, writing his magnum opus for the princely sum of about nine bucks. It’s a great story-behind-the-story, and I talk more about it in my review, but unfortunately a handful of speed-writing sessions in a library basement doesn’t a masterpiece of modern literature make. Fahrenheit 451 is a really short book, and it reads like a good first draft (which, basically, it is). I feel like almost everyone who loves it read it for the first time in high school, when the idea that a government might gain too much power and people would be forced to rebel was a game-changer. In my view, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the superior dystopian classic: it’s given us so much iconic imagery (Big Brother, the ubiquitous ever-watchful screen, etc.), the prose is straightforward but gripping, and Orwell has a lot more room to explore the ideas of his imagined future.
Don’t Read: The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne
Read Instead: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
OK, The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman was one of the first full-length novels written in the form we recognise today, so I can’t be too hard on Laurence Sterne for not exactly nailing it. But don’t be fooled by the title, it’s a study in irony: there’s very little of Tristram Shandy’s life, or opinions, in this book. It’s mostly a meandering chat about philosophy, politics, and his father’s household staff. The language is really inaccessible for most contemporary readers, and I had trouble staying awake. Jane Eyre came later, yes, so Charlotte Brontë had more literary influences to draw upon and she took less of a risk creatively. Still, whichever way you slice it, Jane Eyre is still a far more engaging and readable story. It actually does what it says on the tin, for one thing, in telling Jane’s life story, and Charlotte Brontë has since been called the “first historian of the private consciousness” for her incredible rendering of her protagonist’s inner world.
Don’t Read: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
Read Instead: The Age Of Innocence by Edith Wharton
I expected so much more of The Scarlet Letter, based on its reputation. I thought I was in for a treatise on the control of female sexuality, I wanted a take-down of the patriarchy, I hoped there might even be a few dirty bits. I was sorely disappointed, on all counts. Hawthorne sought to make a single point – that the Puritans sucked – and he made it again, and again, and again. The Age Of Innocence (another later book, but an infinitely better one) had a much more nuanced look at gender roles and societal pressure in America. It’s a lot more subtle, which means you have to play close attention, but I’d much rather that than the way that Hawthorne whacked you over the head with his symbolism…
Don’t Read: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
Read Instead: The Grapes Of Wrath by John Steinbeck
If you’re going to have a stab at writing the Great American Novel, I think it’s cheating to set your story in Europe. I know, I know, Hemingway was “writing what he knew”, but what he knew was a bunch of drunk blokes and one token woman (whom they all wish to sleep with, natch) enjoying their time as spectators to animal cruelty and exhibiting some pretty gross xenophobia. Also, Hemingway was clearly a terrible lover, because not one of his characters in The Sun Also Rises seemed to realise there were alternatives to vanilla P-in-V sex. Snore. Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath was actually set in the States (point one!), and told what I think to be a far more important story about the lives of rural and impoverished Southerners during the Great Depression. Instead of dilly-dallying about feeling sorry for themselves, every character sacked up and shipped out to make the best of unimaginably shitty circumstances. It sounds like an uplifting read as I’m describing it here, and it was in part, but trust me: Steinbeck had perfected the art of the emotional gut-punch, so there’s plenty of those to be found here, too.
Don’t Read: The Golden Bowl by Henry James
Read Instead: Literally anything else.
I really am loath to tell anyone not to read a book. Even when it’s a book I hated, a book that made me want to pull my eyes out and soak them in vodka, I’ll usually tell people to give it go and decide for themselves. I never want to discourage anyone from reading, and even in my most negative reviews I try to find something positive to say about the book in question. But for The Golden Bowl, that was damn near impossible. I have never read a book more impenetrable! I had to resort to reading chapter summaries online as I went, to make sure I was actually following what was going on. James seemed hell-bent on confusing and frustrating the heck out of his reader. Maybe he had a nice turn of phrase or two on occasion, and the plot itself (or what I could decipher of it) wasn’t terrible, but reading The Golden Bowl was enough to make me swear off reading anything else he’s written for the rest of my goddamn life. I can’t really think of a comparable title to encourage you to read instead, I hated it that much. Do yourself a favour and pick up something completely different: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, for instance, or Little Women, or Cold Comfort Farm.
What classic book do you think you could have skipped reading? What would you say would be a good one to read instead? Drop your recommendations in the comments below, or join the thread over at Keeping Up With The Penguins on Facebook!
If it’s summer where you are (it’s certainly heating up here!), be sure to check out this guide to the best classics to put in your beach bag.