DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Jul 26 2013

ShareReads: Adventures with the Classics

by Dea Anne M


When I was 14, I went into the school library and checked out a copy of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Later that day, my English teacher saw me carrying annait in the hallway. She raised an eyebrow and said, voice dripping with scepticism.

“Don’t you think that’s a little bit much?”

Well, that just made me more determined than ever to read the whole book. What I didn’t admit to myself (or to anyone else) was that as interested as I was in the book, I was even more interested in being seen carrying it around. Trying to impress others with my reading choices was a youthful bit of vanity that it took an unfortunately long time to shake. Anyway, I finally finished the novel though I had no real idea of what I had read. Not that I would have let anyone know that.

High school had its required reading as did college but none of the assigned northangertexts, though interesting enough, inspired me to take up reading classics in my leisure time. The change occurred in my Romantic Literature class when the professor assigned us to choose one of two novels and write a paper about it. I think the only reason I picked Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was because I just didn’t want to read the Last of the Mohicans. I was only a few pages into the book, however, before I realized that I’d fallen in love. Since then, I’ve read all of Austen’s work and have happily reread most of them as well – notably my two favorites – Emma and Pride and Prejudice.

In the years since that first delightful experience with Jane Austen, I’ve brothersexplored classic novels sporadically. I went through a Dostoevsky phase which was pretty heavy going but overall worthwhile (favorite novel – The Brothers Karamazov). After that, I experienced a year long flirtation with the works of Henry James of which (and I’m a little embarassed to admit this) I like most the shortest namely The Turn of the Screw and Daisy Miller. Thomas Mann followed Henry James then came James Joyce and after that I stopped setting myself the “project” of trying to read any author’s entire body of work.

Lately, I’ve become interested in exploring the classics again though this timedavid I want to take a less studied approach and select books with an eye toward sheer reading pleasure. Remembering how much I enjoyed Great Expectations, I recently checked out Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I couldn’t put it down! It’s a very long book so it took me a good while to get through and I’m sure that the inmates of my house became less than charmed with my nightly cries of “Poor David!” and “I hate Uriah Heap!” but I really found it that engaging a novel. I followed Dickens with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and I’m happy to report that experience as every bit as enjoyable. I suppose I’ve finally learned that I don’t janehave to  read a classic work of literature in order to “improve” myself or (cringe) in order to impress other people. I can just relax and relish the reading experience. As Italo Calvino reminds us in his book of essays The Uses of Literature, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

If you’re interested in dipping into the classics but don’t know quite where to start, check out the “Best Classic Literature Ever” list on the Goodreads website. You can get more ideas from Modern Library’s “100 Best Novels” list. This last is actually two lists in one – the board’s list which is dominated by classics and the reader’s list which leans more toward genre fiction and includes more science fiction and dark fantasy.

What’s next on my reading list of classics? Middlemarch by George Eliot. Then, who knows, maybe I’ll tackle Anna Karenina again!

What are some of your favorite classics? How do you define a classic?

 PS – This is the last ShareReads post. Hope you had fun with us, and don’t forget to submit your reading and activities completed on our Adult Summer Reading page. Click here to see all of our ShareReads posts this year.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Veronica W July 26, 2013 at 2:51 PM

Last year my granddaughter was struggling with Dante’s Inferno and in my pride, I offered to read it with her, thinking I would be able to explain it. Wrong! I was as befuddled as she was and I hated it!! I was so glad when she finally began to grasp it and actually enjoyed some parts.

In high school and college I was forced to read many “classics” and very few made me want to reread them. However I had to read “An American Tragedy” and I was hooked on Theodore Dreiser. On my own I devoured “Sister Carrie” and “Jenny Gerhardt”. I don’t know whether they are considered classics but … Of course, anything Shakespeare is at the top of the list.

Jimmy L July 26, 2013 at 3:08 PM

The idea of ‘classic’ or ‘canon’ is a little off putting for me. And it’s a little lazy too, because it relies on someone else handing down to you a list of things that are already deemed important. I think all readers should come up with their own personal canon, and be able to defend it using whatever criteria they first defined. In fact, it would be fun to teach a class based on this idea… it may lead to some interesting debates.

Ev July 27, 2013 at 11:26 AM

I was given The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina for my 16th birthday by my uncle. Which to this day I think is kinda odd, but is a pretty accurate illustration of what my family thinks of me and my reading habits. I will read (or try to read) just about anything. I’ve always wondered why we put so much import on what we have read verses what we have learned from what we have read.

Chuck July 29, 2013 at 8:39 AM

Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw are my favorite Henry James novels as well. The Old Man and the Sea is my favorite Hemingway novel. In none of these cases does length play a part. I think school curriculum and some teachers, especially in middle school, do a terrible disservice to both “literature” and their students. Great Expectations was rammed down my throat in 8th grade with the result that I hated Dickens until well after college when I decided to give him another look on my own, and have appreciated his work ever since. I think it might be helpful if teachers sometimes let students know it’s okay not to like something, and to suggest they revisit it later. I had a college professor (of English literature no less) tell his class when we were slogging through Spenser that sometimes it was most important just to get through a work. That advise has come back to me more times than I can count.

Sarah July 29, 2013 at 3:33 PM

I, too, hated Great Expectations when I was forced to read it for school, but have often thought about giving Dickens another try. I was introduced to James Joyce in college (in a class while studying abroad outside of Dublin!) with A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then ended up reading Ulysses for another class when I returned, and really enjoyed both of them. There are many more classics that have been on my to-read list for years, but who knows when I will get around to them!

Sonia July 30, 2013 at 8:16 PM

I too read Anna Karenina when I was in high school and fell in love immediately with the story. I have been a romantic, since my pre-teen years, and constantly favored period novels. Another favorite is Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights with famous lovers: Heathcliff and Catherine. Heathcliff and Catherine’s love was more like that of twins than lovers. For me a classic work pf art is usually a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. One can read a classic literature over and over again and learn something new about the characters. A classic will be discussed and reviewed in any decade.

Robert Purcell July 31, 2013 at 11:16 AM

Now that I’m out of school and the classics are no longer “required”, I find that I usually enjoy them more when I do read them. Just this year I read “Wuthering Heights” for the first time, and last year I read “Moby Dick”. I enjoyed both of them, but just because a book is a classic doesn’t mean you will necessarily love it. But chances are, if it’s a classic, people have held it in high regard for a reason.

Liz July 31, 2013 at 4:20 PM

Some of my favorite classics include “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. I think a classic is a book that can stand the test and time and can be enjoyed by any generation that has a good solid story to make you think.

Cheryl July 31, 2013 at 8:28 PM

It has been a long time since I have read a classic. I read a few classic books in high school and in college. I decided to read a classic for the fall and it is Pride and Prejudice. I think I will have my son read To Kill A Mocking Bird.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: