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In Praise of Classics: Don’t Fear the Great Books!

Written by: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer


 

 

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Don’t be shy…dig right in!

I distinctly remember the first time I took my literary life into my own hands. I was in high school English class, discussing T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. To that point in class, we had been assigned only the first of the four books contained within it, but since I had recently returned from vacation (where I did, and still do, enjoy reading as a form of relaxation), I had finished it completely, and LOVED it. I don’t remember what the class was discussing, and I don’t remember what point it was that I was trying to make (I ASSURE you I was not “showing off” in any way), but I began talking about an event in Book Three, about two hundred pages further along than the others. A “popular” girl from the back of the class scoffed, and then said “You’ve already read THAT much?” Her complaint was not so much that I had read ahead, but that I had apparently LIKED it. What’s more, it was a classic novel, which must be considered awful if you are to have standing in high school hierarchy. I began an apologetic response, explaining myself and my need for entertainment on family vacations, when something snapped, and I realized for the first time that I was allowed to like what I liked, and did not need validation from some girl I hardly knew, and did not care about at all. “Yes,” I answered defiantly, “I did.” This banal little story still stands out clearly in my head as the moment that I stopped hiding my love of great books, or my desire to soak in the work of the masters. I swore to myself that never again would I apologize for reading the classics.

 

Over a dozen years later, I am an adult who devours literary greats with abandon. And yet, somehow, I am still apologizing for it.

Because of my daily commute on public transportation, I spend a good deal of time reading in public. This gives perfect strangers, as well as friends and co-workers, ample opportunity to see what book I’ve got in my hands, and to comment on it. Now, if I’m reading Freakonomics, or the latest Dan Brown “novel,” no one ever says a word. However, if the book in my hands happens to be one that has ever appeared on a summer reading list, I get looks and comments all the time. Basically, these people feign being impressed with my book choice (while inwardly mocking me), and give what amounts to one of three reasons why they themselves will never read it:

  1. It’s too hard.
  2. It’s too long.
  3. It’s too boring.

Please allow me, on behalf of classic books everywhere, to debunk each of these excuses.

  1. It’s too hard – There are only two situations where I find this a valid excuse: if the person saying it is a child, or if the book in question is Finnegan’s Wake. In all other cases, this is a copout born of fear. Basically, I think that for many people, their only interaction with classics are when they’re forced to read them for a class, with tests, papers, and projects waiting for them at the end. Because of this, there’s a sense that each event and piece of dialogue contains a hundred layers of meaning, and that the books therefore have to be STUDIED if they are to be at all understood. This is utter nonsense; books can be enjoyed on many different levels, and for many different reasons. It IS true in many cases that, the deeper you dig into a great work, the more meaning you will glean from it, but the same thing could be said about a movie or TV show. Does this mean that only the people who really THINK about the nuances of The Sopranos are able to enjoy it?
  2. It’s too long – I honestly have never understood this excuse. Determining the readability of a book based on the number of its final page, to me, is akin to basing a movie choice solely on its run time, or refusing to buy a video game if it takes too long to complete. It is true that longer books take more time to finish than shorter books, but as long as the story is compelling and the characters resonate, than all that means is you have more time to live in the world of the novel than you would if the author had cut it off earlier. If this seems too simple an explanation, then look no further than the Harry Potter books. Each book is longer than the next, and between them all, they probably contain over a thousand pages of unneeded text. But in these cases, the more pages each book contains, the longer the reader can spend at Hogwarts learning magic and fighting evil. Now if this can be true for a children’s book, why can’t it be true also for a classic?
  3. It’s too boring – This is a purely subjective excuse, and there is simply no way to know if it’s true without doing the very thing you’re trying to get out of by saying it. Unfortunately, I think this mindset is a byproduct of the MTV generation, where we have all become so used to jump-cuts and lightning quick sound bites that anything that takes its time in any way is seen as slow and plodding. The other problem here is due to perception: for many people, a classic work of literature is synonymous with stuffy people in starched shirts speaking flowery language while talking about nothing. Now while this theoretically MIGHT describe one or two book generally deemed “classic,” I can honestly say that I’ve never read them. Instead, the classics that I’ve read are filled with murder, suicide, revenge, sex, violence, and pathos. And those are just off the top of my head.

To sum up, I really do think the English class model has ruined the greatest books in the history of the world for millions of students everywhere. As Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace (Yeah, I read it. Want to make something of it?) a person can sit for hours with their leg crossed in comfort, but the second they are told they MUST do so, it becomes intolerably uncomfortable. The key here, then, is to convince the people who avoid classics that reading these books is a pleasure, and not something to be feared, or forced upon them.

CC2K is here to help. Our crack team of literature lovers will offer insight into their favorites of the world’s best books. By the end, we will not only refute the three excuses above, we will DESTROY them.

 

Click HERE to read about the brilliance of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Click HERE to read an essay about, and like, Ulysses

Click HERE to read an essay praising the dysfunctional love of Wuthering Heights

Click HERE to read about the timeless beauty of Gone With the Wind

Click HERE to read about the ageless wonder that is The Brothers Karamazov

Click HERE if you think you’re man enough to read Jane Eyre

Click HERE to read about the cosmic brilliance that is The Iliad

Click HERE to read about the exploding love and passion in Madame Bovary

Click HERE to read how nothing happens and everything happens in The Magic Mountain

Click HERE to find out why the only book you need to read is Faust

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Author: Rob Van Winkle, CC2K Staff Writer

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