I think every reader of classic literature has had this experience at least once: you read a “classic,” book, expecting to like it, only to think, “This book sucks! How the hell did this become a classic?”
I think this experience is inevitable. After all, readers have individual preferences, and no book is going to appeal universally to everyone. Still, it made me wonder: who decides what becomes a classic? Is it academics? Book readers? Publishing companies interested in drumming up interest for older titles? And is there a way to avoid certain so-called classics before we waste hours of our lives reading books we don’t like?
For me, the classic I loathed most was Crime and Punishment. I was required to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1866 book as a senior in high school. The book focused on a man named Raskolnikov, who murders an unscrupulous pawn broker and her sister to solve his monetary problems. I remember we had many discussions in class about Raskolnikov’s belief that he was superior to the pawn broker, and therefore conventional rules of morality didn’t apply to him. I believe my teacher even invoked the Nietzschian concept of the uberman to describe Raskolnikov’s self-image. But by this time, I was already thinking, “This guy’s an asshole! Why would I want to read about him?”
I honestly don’t know whether I would have the same impression of Crime and Punishment now as I did then. I suspect I would be able to grasp the moral ambiguities of the book better now than I did at seventeen. Still, the experience of being forced to read a book I couldn’t stand was so bad that I’ve never been tempted to pick it up and try again.
The other book that had that effect on me was Moby-Dick. Some critics regard Melville’s epic as the greatest American novel of all time. And yet, I thought it was long-winded and boring, so much so that I never even finished the book. Again, this was assigned reading, this time during my senior year of college. I remember hearing my professor talking about the book’s point-of-view during class, how the narrator begins with Ishmael as the narrator but he gradually fades into the background, how there are even scenes in the book that Ishmael could not be narrating because he couldn’t have witnessed them firsthand. As my classmates debated about who the narrator could be for these mysterious scenes, I remarked, “Sounds like Melville just had a really crappy editor.” I got a chuckle out of a few of my classmates, but I don’t think my professor appreciated the sentiment.
I come by my strong opinions pretty naturally. Whenever I signed up for classes in school, my mother would say to me, “Whatever you do, don’t take a class where you have to read Hemingway!” She hates Hemingway, because of his tendency to romanticize war and his chauvinistic writing style. She also despises Lord of the Flies; she told me that the idea of children killing other children was just too disturbing to her. Of course, she also reads Stephen King on a regular basis, and he’s done some pretty violent and deplorable things to children in his books, so I can’t quite figure out why this would bother her. Personally, the violence and brutality of Lord of the Flies was what I liked most about it. (Don’t know what that says about me, though.)
I knew someone once who couldn’t stand William Faulkner, although now I can’t remember why. As I recall, though, he also claimed that when he visited Faulkner’s longtime home in Mississippi he saw the author’s ghost. Maybe Faulkner’s nefarious plan was to scare my friend into liking his writing. Maybe the long-dead southern writer just wanted to engage in a scholarly debate about the merits of his work. Or maybe my friend was crazy and/or lying. Who knows? That said, with my overactive imagination and easily excitable nature, I will probably think twice before making a trip to the William Faulkner House.
I think that whether you like a classic book or not probably depends largely on whether you would like that kind of book if it came from a contemporary writer. If you tend to like minimalist prose, James Joyce’s rambling, stream-of-consciousness-style writing will probably grate on you. And if you like stories with a lot of action, you probably won’t like Jane Austen.
That said, be careful of what you say, and to whom. Book lovers are passionate about their classics, and if you disparage one of their favorites you may find yourself in a debate you cannot win, perhaps alienating friends in the process. When I told my boyfriend I was planning to write this article, I asked him what classics he didn’t like. He thought about it for a moment, and then gave me the title: Jane Eyre, a book that just happens to be one of my favorites. “I don’t understand why people think it’s so great,” he told me. “It isn’t about anything important. It’s just chick lit.”
I almost broke up with him right then and there.
Selected Book Releases, March 2-8
Handle With Care by Jodi Picoult—The prolific Picoult’s latest book is about the family of a young girl born with a debilitating disability.
Fight for Your Money: How to Stop Getting Ripped Off and Save a Fortune by David Bach—The title pretty much says it all here.
Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer—Inspired by the true story of George Mallory, who perished while attempting to climb Mt. Everest in 1924, this book explores the question of whether Mallory ever made it to the top.
The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell—In this novel, the horrors of World War II are recounted from the perspective of a former Nazi officer.
Lucy’s Legacy: The Quest for Human Origins by Dr. Donald Johanson and Kate Wong—Nonfiction about how the discovery of the hominid skeleton dubbed Lucy has affected the search for human origins.
The Believers by Zoe Heller—The latest from the Notes on a Scandal author follows a screwed-up family after their patriarch has a stroke.
Angels of Destruction: A Novel by Keith Donohue—A mysterious young girl shows up at the home of a widow one night with nowhere to go, and the widow decides to pass the child off as her granddaughter.
Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton with Erin Torneo—When Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint in 1984, she identifies Ronald Cotton as her attacker. Years later, Cotton is exonerated by DNA evidence, and Thompson and Cotton forge an unlikely friendship.
Honolulu by Alan Brennert—Follows the lives of Asian immigrants in Hawaii in the early 20th century.