Have you ever found yourself zoning out, nodding along blankly, as the person you’re with chats away about their favourite classic book? Maybe you read it once in high school and hated it (don’t worry, enforced reading isn’t fun for anyone, no judgement). Maybe you’ve heard of it and figure you know enough to pretend you’ve read it, even though you really haven’t. But, seeing as you’ve ended up here, I’m guessing you’ve decided now is the time to get caught up and make your way through some of literature’s greatest hits. That makes me your new best friend, because I’ve put together another amazing Keeping Up With The Penguins guide: how to read more classic books.
“What counts as a classic book, anyway?”
Say it with me, now: it depends who you ask.
Personally, I tend to consider the classics to be books that have endured over a hundred years with continued and ongoing resonance. That’s how I categorise them here on KUWTP. Italo Calvino once famously said that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”, and I think that’s spot-fucking-on. While I’m not alone in that opinion, a lot of people aren’t as hard-arse on the timeline, and consider books published much more recently to be “classics”, too. So, really, there are about as many answers to this question as there are readers of classic literature.
When we’re deciding which books “count” as classics, we can look at which books were “firsts” (to cross genre boundaries, for instance, or create a new tradition), or the books we used as yardsticks (the way, for example, we compare all vampire fiction to Dracula). We could take into consideration books that have taken readers by surprise, prompted social movements, or triggered change. We’d be foolish to limit ourselves too strictly by time period, because, as I said, a “classic” book could be over 1,000 years old or released in the last decade depending whom you ask. It’s pretty reasonable to want or expect a classic book to stand the test of time, but it’s up to you how much time testing it really has to stand before it’s let behind the velvet rope.
Don’t forget that different genres also have different criteria for what constitutes a “classic”. Looking over a list of, say, sci-fi classics, you’ll see that they usually don’t have much in common with classic poetry, or the pre-war American classics. Heck, there are people who consider 50 Shades of Grey to be a new erotica classic, but you’d be hard pressed to find a literary fiction reader who’d use that book title and “classic” in the same sentence.
“Does a book have to be “good” to be a classic?”
You’d think the answer to that is obvious, but the problem is that what constitutes a “good” book is extremely subjective. Once again, it’s different for everyone.
I think it’s generally fair to expect that books meet certain standards of “goodness” to be considered classic – they’re widely read and enjoyed, well-crafted, insightful, and interesting – but beyond that, there’s a wasteland of opinions and conjecture.
Now, let’s get something straight: you are under no obligation to read the classics, whether they’re “good” or not. You don’t have to agree with anyone else on what the “classics” are. You don’t have to read them in order to be a “real” or “serious” reader. So, if you’d rather poke your eye out with a rusty fork than pick up a classic book, you can quit right here. No one is holding you hostage, even if it feels like there’s a lot of pressure from classic-lovin’ bookworms. There are plenty of contemporary and non-classic-y books out there that can’t wait to meet you!
My advice from here on is strictly for those who are interested in reading the classics and expanding their world through the literary canon they haven’t yet explored – I’m not in the business of imposing literary elitism on anyone. 😉
Classic Books and Where to Find Them
I’ve lost count of how many times in the How To Read More series I’ve suggested checking out your local library, but I’m going to do it again here and now: check out your local library. Any library worth its salt will have a decent selection of classics across a variety of genres and time periods, and you can check them out (for free!) without any obligation. Heck yeah!
My advice doesn’t end there, though. One of the great things about getting into classic literature is that the copyright for a lot of these books and authors has lapsed, meaning that they are often (even usually) available for free in an eBook format, somewhere on the internet. Just look at the Amazon offering for Kindle – it’s bursting at the seams with literary classics, and so many are completely free!
If you’re not an eBook reader, never fear: a lot of traditional publishers have capitalised on the opportunity that public domain work provides (to publish popular and enduring work without paying royalties, and no legal repercussions), releasing a bunch of very, very affordable versions in paperback.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a special shout-out to Project Gutenberg, which – at last count – offers nearly 60,000 public domain books for free through their website. No eReader or smartphone required, you can read them right there in your browser if you want. It’ll be years before we fully understand the impact that the Project has had on global literacy, but for now you should take full advantage of the opportunity that it presents to you and say a silent prayer to the literature gods that it continues in perpetuity.
So, now you know where to find classic books, let’s lay out a plan to get you reading them.
Step One: Stop Being Scared of Classic Literature
I’ve got a confession for you: I was scared of classic books for most of my life. I was convinced that I wasn’t smart enough to read them, or that I wasn’t educated enough to understand them. Even once I graduated, I figured I’d studied the “wrong thing” and classic books were reserved for the arts graduates that wore berets and pronounced Nietzsche correctly without even trying.
This is the book-lover’s version of imposter syndrome; we convince ourselves that because we read a lot of YA, or we prefer prose to poetry, or we struggle with stilted language, that we “don’t belong” in the Classics section. We start to think that if we even try to read them, everyone will find out we’re a big fat fraud.
So, let’s call bullshit on all of that right now. The classics are for everyone. A classic doesn’t become a classic without a lot of people reading it and loving it for a long time (see above), and statistically at least some of those people must have had the same tastes, education, and interests as you.
Bonus tip: make it easier on yourself. Start small. You wouldn’t start playing a video game on Level 20, would you? If you dive into the deep-end with Shakespeare’s collected works or The Odyssey, you’re setting yourself up to fail. There will be a bunch of unfamiliar references buried in a mountain of obscure language that goes right over your head, and you won’t have a hope of relating or engaging to the text. So, find a novel that will ease you in. Victorian classics are usually good choices, because the language isn’t all that different and you’ll be familiar enough with the cultural references already (and if you’re not, they’re usually easy enough to piece together anyway). Jane Eyre is one that I personally recommend, or David Copperfield – I read them early on in the Keeping Up With The Penguins project, and they put me in great stead to build on my relationship with the classics. If I can do it, you can do it. Promise.
Step Two: Find A Classic Book That Suits You
The most fundamental mistake you’ll make in your endeavour to read more classic books is picking one purely because it’s a “classic” that you’ve seen on lots of Buzzfeed lists or Pinterest graphics. There are better ways to go about it!
Take a look at the books you’ve enjoyed in the past, your preferred genres and formats, and try to find classics that are similar to those. Maybe the genres have progressed or changed over time, but you’ll be able to find something that feels a little familiar in terms of themes, characters, settings, and so on.
Here’s the easiest way to do it: chances are, you’ve already read an adaptation or two in your time (in fact, some would argue that all contemporary books owe a debt to the classics in one way or another). Consider going back to the original text, whatever it is. You’ll already have some familiarity with the story, which will make it easier to follow and enjoy. Make a list of all the books you’ve loved that are adapted from or related to classic literature. If you loved The Hours, for instance, go back and read Mrs Dalloway, or try Pride And Prejudice if you loved Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Step Three: Get Some Context For What You’re Reading
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it’s always a good idea to find an edition with a decent introduction. I know people don’t always read them, but if you’re just beginning your foray into the classics it’s well worth it. The introduction (well, a good one) will give you all the background information you need before reading your classic book: the life and inspiration of the author, the political context of their work, our contemporary understanding of what they were trying to say, the popularity of their work over time, how the work changed between editions, language quirks, and more.
To give you an idea of how important this is, check out my review of Little Women. Without reading the introduction first, I would have read the book completely differently. In fact, I probably would have written it off as sentimental, moralising guff – I would have disregarded it entirely – if I didn’t have that foundation of knowledge about Lousia May Alcott’s politics and motivations.
If an edition with a good introduction isn’t easily accessible (sometimes they’re difficult to find, sometimes they’re super expensive, sometimes the introductions are too academic and stuffy to be of any use), just do some research online. I mean, you have a device in your pocket – you’re probably looking at it right now! – that allows you to access the entire breadth and depth of human knowledge. So, chances are someone somewhere has written down what you need to know about the book you’re about to read.
Check out the author’s Wikipedia page to get an idea of when and where they lived, and how their life circumstances influenced their work. Look at recent reviews and book blogger posts about the book, because they’re sure to have some interesting tid-bits about the nature of the work. Sure, you risk encountering some spoilers with this method, but honestly the benefit you’ll get out of a contextual understanding far outweighs the detriment of knowing that the baby-daddy dies in the end of The Scarlet Letter.
Step Four: Start Reading!
It’s as simple as picking up the book and getting down to business. For more suggestions on how to do it, check out the first installment of this series, which was packed with tips on how to carve time out of your day and stay focused on reading.
Bonus tip: take it slow! And don’t be concerned if you’re taking longer than usual to read. You might need extra time to look up antiquated language, or revisit chapter summaries and make sure you’re following everything that’s going on. Even if you’re not taking those additional breaks, your brain might just need a little longer to process what you’re taking in. That’s okay! It takes me a lot longer to read a Victorian or Russian classic than it does to read a recent best-seller, so you’re definitely not alone.
Step Five: Expand Your Classic Horizons
OK, once you’ve read a few classics – and enjoyed them! – you’re ready to level up.
If you read last week’s post, you already know how important diversity in reading is to me (as it should be to everyone, to be honest). Because of the patriarchy and cultural imperialism and the way the damn world works, in the present and in the past, chances are good that the classic(s) you pick up were written by straight white men (or, in a pinch, straight white women, and even then probably only the wealthy ones). The sad fact is that these are the classics that have received the most attention over literary history… but that’s not to say that classics by people of colour or LGBTIQ+ writers or writers with disabilities don’t exist. They certainly do!
Once you’ve started to get comfortable with reading classics, you’re ready to seek them out if you haven’t already, and add an extra dimension to your classics-reading life. Here’s an entree platter to get you started:
- Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup (1853)
- The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1845)
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs (1861)
- Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (1956)
- In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1908)
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1890)
Bonus Tips: How To Read (Even More!) Classics
Have a go at re-reading the classics that you didn’t like initially, or gave up on long ago. You know, the ones you were forced to read in high-school, or the ones that you tried and abandoned in your early twenties. You’ll probably be reluctant to revisit them at first, but I’m in it with you: I’m walking the walk: I circled back around to Pride and Prejudice again for Keeping Up With The Penguins (having started, and abandoned, it no fewer than half-a-dozen times in the past). One of my favourite sayings is “you don’t read the book, the book reads you”, and it holds true with the classics most of all. You change and grow over the years, and you never know: you might just change and grow into a person that loves your currently-most-hated classic book. 😉
Another great piece of advice is the one my husband gave to me when I was tackling Moby Dick: let go of the idea that you’re going to understand every single world, or fully comprehend the author’s meaning. In fact, let go of the idea that you’ll understand even most of it. Focus on getting into the flow of the book, and ride the author’s wave. You’ll get the gist, at least, and that will be enough for now. Save the in-depth understanding for future re-reads, because it takes the pressure off and lets you enjoy the book without tearing your hair out.
And, finally, if you pick up a book and you’re giving it a red-hot go and you’re trying to get into the flow but it’s just not working… give it up! The fact is there are dozens – probably hundreds – of other classic books out there that you will enjoy and relate to. Don’t be afraid to ditch one half-way through, or a quarter of the way through, or even less if it really sucks. Your time is better spent on classic books that enrich your world and bring you joy.