How to Appreciate/Read a Classic (Or How I did it)

Anne Hathaway in Becoming Jane
(click image to be directed to source)

I’m on a classics-mode. I’ve just finished re-reading Gaskell’s North and South (I bought the new Penguin Classics cover) and am now reading some Sherlock Holmes in hope to follow it up with either an Austen or a Bronte. Today’s post is inspired by this. Every Saturday I get the privilege of writing either a review or my thoughts on reading. Today, without a book to review I invite you to join a discussion on reading classics.

I’ve always found comfort and pleasure in reading classics. Majority of the people I know do not read the classics, despite being readers themselves. Their reasons begin with the language being too difficult and end with the storyline too distant to the present context. Classics are often seen as books read by literature majors or intellectuals. They carry a certain air of snobbery in them. Holding the more obscure books of Dickens or writers like Poe and Hardy, to some people, can be off putting. The general association with the classics is that they are too esoteric. In many ways there is truth to that, but today, I hope to share a few thoughts on reading classics.

I am not a literature major, nor an intellectual. If anything, I’d say I’m very much your average reader whose reading tastes range from lovely picture books to contemporary fiction.  My penchant for classics wasn’t always there. I, too, initially found the books too daunting a task to read. I associate classics with book reports our high school teachers would torture us with. It’s possible these compulsory reading assignments have left a bad taste in the mouth of readers when it comes to classics. All that hullaballoo on character’s context, meaning of scenes and socio-political analysis of the book has left majority of us discouraged to read the classics. My love for classics however was obviously not at first sight, but it was a gradual affair. We began as acquaintances, eventually to friends, and then to close confidantes with private jokes between us. So how does one approach a classic?

Whilst Reading. A Portrait of Sofia Kramskoya, the Artist’s Wife (1866)
(Click image to be directed to source)

Find your classic (era). The term classic applies to a wide range of books across a long period of time. It might start with the first ever written novel, Murasaki’s Tales of Genji or books by Dostoevsky  It’s wrong to assume that all classics are created equal. Not every classic is as thick as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or as dark and broody as Edgar Allan Poe’s novels.  Like all forms of literature there are genres within the classics selection of a bookstore. By finding your era, whether you’d enjoy a good light Victorian/Elizabethan novel or maybe something more Gothic or shocking there’s always something that may appeal to you. My first classics were considered ‘children’s classics’ they were Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Anne Sewell’s Black Beauty. From there I moved to Mark Twain, graduated to Jane Austen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and to James Barrie.

Read Slow and get Immersed. Classics aren’t written in our modern tongue. It is written with every mark of the period it was published. As daunting and challenging as it may be, I do suggest reading your first classic slow. Allow the book and the language to grow with you. It’s like immersing yourself in a different world. When I first forayed into ‘older’ classics I would stumble over sentences trying to understand their meaning, but when I got used to them saying “two and twenty” to mean twenty two years old. I got the hang of it. My mind started to bend itself to read the language as if it was second nature to me. Think of it as traveling to another country where the English may be mixed with their unique accents. It would take a few interactions to get the hang of it, but you do get it eventually. Once immersed in the book, the language becomes less problematic and almost easy to read.

Follow through with another classic. Once immersed, you rather get a hang of the language, while still drenched in it, it is best to read another one. Maybe read a book from the same author. In this way, the next book becomes easier to read. The ease in the language and the context is reward itself and may motivate you to read more classics. I read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn back to back. I did the same with the Austen’s novels. There’s a momentum created by one classic that carries you along what could have been a difficult read. Personally, I find that when I jump from classic to contemporary or vice versa I find my mind at first muddled up and confused. It takes some time to switch back to the context of the book I’m reading.

Try again. If the first classic you got was a miss, find another one. You can even start with thinner books like Peter Pan or a child’s classic such as Alice in Wonderland or even Anne of Green Gables. Don’t jump from “I don’t read classics” to “Brother Karamazov” all too sudden. Reading classics, especially from someone who was traumatized by it, requires pacing.

Once you’ve tried and still hate it, then you may move on and maybe try some other time. Books match a period in our lives and sometimes at certain stages, we could prefer contemporary fiction and on other times, a classic can do us wonders. It would be great to have read a classic in one’s life, but I do not think it is evil not to have read any of them.

While I’m no professional in the reading of classics, these ‘steps’ were what worked for me. So, I ask:

Do you read classic literature? How did you get into it? What do you like or dislike about reading classics? I would love to know your thoughts.

2 comments on “How to Appreciate/Read a Classic (Or How I did it)

  1. I have read classic lit. I think my sister introduced me to the genre. I may have read about 6 of them and a 7th that I dropped midway. And it’s been years since I picked one up again. But I’m re-reading Pride and Prejudice now and I find it less difficult and 10 times more enjoyable than the first time. The language has always been an issue for me. I have to read certain sentences multiple times, which is not even a guarantee that I will understand it in the end. That and because classics really aren’t a page turner for me, it’s not the kind where I get excited to know what will happen next. What I do like about it is that feeling of pride that you get after finishing one. *pats back* Haha! And the stories are really timeless and makes you think. Like with P&P, what the story says about men, women and marriage and the society are still relevant in the present time. I think Little Prince and P&P would be my best classic read. They are fairly easy and good for beginners.

    I think it’s great that they are coming out with movie adaptations of classics like GThe Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, Les Miserables. It encourages me to pick them up. Although I don’t think I can ever touch the Russians. 🙂

    Knowing that you weren’t always in love with the classics but just grew to love them means there is hope for me yet. And these are really good tips of yours. Be patient and persistent I always say. 🙂


    • Hi Tin,

      Thanks for taking the time to read this post. Language is a hard thing to get over with when it comes to classics, but they can be rewarding if we give ourselves the opportunity to understand them. I think of it as learning a foreign tongue or trying to understand a foreigner’s English. It’s a matter of getting used to and once we do everything is easier.

      I keep thinking why classics are long and winding at times and one of the things I’ve come to conclude about this is the fact back then reading was entertainment. It wasn’t a person sitting alone and reading, at times books are read out loud. The long descriptions and narratives i suppose allow the reader ( i mean the assigned reader) to let his/her listener feel and picture the scenario. While current books have it all implied because reading these days is more an individual exercise. Well, that’s my theory so far. haha.

      Movie adaptations are wonderful. its just sad that some people don’t even realize it comes from a book. My sister just told me that her office mate was shock to discover the phantom of the opera broadway is based on a book….as well as Les Miserables.

      Russian Classics are tough. I haven’t thread the waters yet. My sister has read Dostoevsky and enjoyed it…this coming from a person who had difficulties reading the Great Gatsby or Jane Austen. Once again proving its finding the classic that works for us.


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