Reading the Classics

It always amuses me to see the classification systems that bookshops use for their stock.

I dislike some of these. It always irritates me to see Science Fiction and Fantasy put together; I feel they are distinct genres.

A while ago there was a trend for ‘misery memoirs’: real life stories of harrowing experiences. These were very distressing, but I felt that they were being trivialised by being categorised as “Tragic Life Stories” or something similar.

These now, thank goodness, seem to have fallen out of fashion. One category that never seems to fade away is that of “Classics”; it is often called “Classic Literature”, but can then become just “Literature”.

What do these labels mean? Off the top of my rather bald head, I see classics as being of a certain age, somewhat distinguished by time. I have big problems with Literature. Why is one novel Literature, another just…. a novel? (And by the way, just how patronising is “Chick Lit”? Is it literature for chickens?)

Like many people I was amazed and astonished to see that Morrisey’s memoirs had been published under the Penguin Modern Classic imprint. Surely a Modern Classic is one that has stood the test of time, just not such a length of time as a classic. Oh dear, this is more and more confusing.

I have a fairly clear idea in my head of whether a book is a classic or not. Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy. I know, they are all dead (and were all white), but that is possibly the point. Perhaps you have to have died before living memory to be a classic author.

I have recently re-read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but have also tackled some classic novels unfamiliar to me. ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell was one. I have read ‘Cranford’, probably her most famous book, but one I found a bit thin, and ‘Wives and Daughters’, which I find thoroughly enjoyable and should probably have featured in my Re-reads and Re-rereads blogpost. (Why is she often referred to as “Mrs Gaskell”, as if she had not been not a person in her own right but a wife?) I came to it after hearing it dramatised on the radio one winter when I was ill in bed (at the age of 39, newly married, with mumps- don’t ask).

Here’s a sub-theme: coming to classics through film, TV and radio. I used to have a rather puritan view that it’s better to read them first, but now I’m not so sure. If adaptations get people to widen their reading, fine. This was the case for me with ‘North and South’, following a fine BBC TV dramatisation some years ago. However, I found reading the book a bit disappointing. There are so many long interior monologues and authorial discussions which make it hard going for a plot-driven reader like me.

At the moment I am reading ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, inspired by a Sunday supplement article about her. Again there was a good BBC dramatisation, which I have largely forgotten. The book is (so far) rather more fun than I had anticipated, although again spoiled for me by some long discussions, for example of 19th century medical trends. It appears to have a large cast of characters and so I have taken to using a diagram of them and their connections, as I have done with Dickens and Tolstoy. (See ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ by Charles Dickens and War and Peace.)

Ah, Dickens. I am happy to say I still have some of his novels to read and hope to do so before I’m finished. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘Dombey and Son’ come to mind. Dickens is very readable, as long as you can keep track of the characters.

Oh dear, as so often this has become a ramble. In the hope of spreading some enlightenment I would recommend Anthony Trollope as another accessible classic author. I’ve never quite got to grips with the chronology of his ‘Barchester’ novels but I live in hope. Austen of course is thoroughly entertaining: just ignore literary criticism of her work.

In fact, that’s a general rule: don’t read literary criticism. A good edition of a classic novel with footnotes can be very helpful, but they are often sadly lacking in Kindle versions.

Now I have reached the point in my life where I read what I want to, because I think I will enjoy a book, and sometimes also because I think it will, in some nebulous way, benefit me. And, dear reader, unless you are studying for a qualification, I suggest you do the same.

Reading the Classics


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