I consider myself to be somewhat bipolar in my reading habits. On the one hand, I am obsessed with reading the books I should have read. On the other, I want to read the latest and greatest in hardback fiction, especially from new authors. It can be difficult to reconcile these two approaches to my reading lists and I sometimes wonder whether it’s really worth retreading the ground that so many have covered before and reading Dickens, Austen, Orwell, Nabokov.
Let me first differentiate here between the classics and the greats. I, rather simplistically, split these into age – if it was written before 1900 it is a classic and afterwards, but gained wide popular and critical acclaim it’s a great. For example, Great Expectations is a classic, while Of Mice and Men is a great. Easy enough.
At school, when we are told we have to read these great and classic books, we shun the idea. We want to read the latest YA fiction – if we want to read at all! – and neglect these books that we should be reading. To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent personal example of this quandary. I was set to read this book in school at the age of about 13 or 14 and didn’t. I read the passages we had to read to pass the test, but I neglected the book as a whole – why read it all when I can watch Gregory Peck do what he does best?! So when I turned 21 and had what I hope was a quarter-life, rather than mid-life, crisis and decided I needed to stop reading so much trashy crime fiction and read the classics and greats I turned to Harper Lee. It blew me away. I experienced what countless others have felt when reading this great novel of justice, society, liberty and humanity. I felt something else too, remorse. Why had I not read this before?! I could have re-read it time and time again and enjoyed it all the same. What else have I missed out on? Better go check out that Lolita book I’ve heard everyone rave about.
And so, after one outstanding experience, I was kicked in the teeth by Vladimir and Humbert Humbert. I admire that this Russian born writer can write such prose in his third or fourth language and I’m sure it is a literary masterpiece as everyone says but it just really, really wasn’t for me. I remember one passage in which we were ‘treated’ to a long list of pseudonyms one of the characters used in an extensive amount of motels. It just dragged on and on. And on.
The classics I have read thus far have been challenging and far less frequent, Great Expectations and The Last of the Mohicans have been the only true classics I have gone for just yet and I enjoyed them, though their long, drawn out writing styles were challenging. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed them – there’s a smugness you can claim for reading the classics of your own volition. You don’t quite get the same for finishing the latest James Patterson thriller.
It’s not so much the smugness that led me to read the classics and the greats, but there is certainly an element of being ‘in the loop’ and getting the cultural references that are in these books. For instance, I had never quite understood the references to Holden Caulfield in Family Guy. I do now. I had never quite understood Ryan Adams’ beautiful song Sylvia Plath. I do now.
Despite all of this, the real reason I am obsessed with them is because, for the most part, they are what they are. Fantastic books with deep characters, subtle meanings, beautiful words. Books don’t go down in history for the same reasons these classics and greats do for no reason. Sure, there are some you’ll come across that you don’t enjoy, but the majority are sublime examples of what language can do. As I write this I am about 5 chapters into The Grapes of Wrath. As a huge fan of Of Mice and Men already, I am utterly absorbed in the stunning way John Steinbeck can tell a story. I’ve never been to Oklahoma, but now I feel like I live there in the 30’s. I put off reading it for a long time. It sat on my bookshelf taunting me, the epic size and reputation putting me off somewhat, but it is an utterly fantastic work (so far!).
So yes, it really is worth reading the greats and the classics. There is something to be said for standing out on your own and not letting lists of the ‘100 greatest books’ determine what you read, but ultimately these books are there for a reason. They have done what all great pieces of art do – they have stood the test of time. Beauty and intrigue can only go so far to carrying a piece of work for so long, the rest is up to the readers and the relevance they can hold hundreds of years later. Also, if we keep reading new titles in between, we may read those greats 50 years early!