Piles of books

The Next Chapter: C is for Classics

In my last blog post, I mentioned at the end that my main goal this year was to read more classic novels. Last year, the only thing classic I read were four plays by Henrik Ibsen, including A Doll House. I try to read at least one classic every year because I really enjoy them. I get a joy from reading a great book that has been read by so many people before me.

I’m not interested in an academic definition of classics. I am not talking about epics like The Iliad and The Odessy. I am not talking about The Divine Comedy by Dante or Paradise Lost by John Milton. As much as I would love to read them, I have a feeling I won’t ever read them. I am talking about novels written from the 1700’s and on, books from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby and beyond.

What I love about classic novels is that we can still be touched by a book written 200 years or more. That’s in part why we still read them. We can find some relevance in our own lives, even if we don’t go to fancy balls or men don’t settle disputes with a duel anymore. Even a 70-year-old book like 1984 seems in somehow to be a reflection of what is happening in the World in 2018.

I will be the first to admit that classics aren’t always the easiest books to read. I think much of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf went over my head when I read it after I graduated from college. I also had a hard time navigating the philosophical discussions of The Brothers Karamazov. I never made it past the second chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses or made it past the second page of William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate the way Dostoyevsky uses ideas or the way Joyce uses the English language.

There seems to be a movement away from reading classic literature because they do not live up to today’s exacting politically correct standards. The Merchant of Venice deals with Anti-Semitism. People want to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because of the language Twain used. I think it is unrealistic to not read these books, even although parts of them are problematic to readers in 2018. I wonder if years to come people might refuse to read To Kill a Mockingbird because it deals with a rape case involving a black man and a white woman. If we focus on the small details, we lose the relevance of these books and why it’s important to read them.

I have been reading classics since my mother persuaded me to read Crime and Punishment when I was a teenager. I was astounded that a book written so long ago would make me think about sin and redemption. Other classic novels I’ve enjoyed are Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackery, the great tale of revenge, Balzac’s Cousin Bette, the stormy romance between Katherine Linton and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Edith Wharton’s scathing look at New York society, The House of Mirth.

I am currently reading Little Woman by Louisa May Alcott and loving it. It’s a great story of the up and downs of the poor but resourceful March sisters during the Civil War. It’s not the only classic I want to read this year. I only have two more books to read by Jane Austen, Persuasion and Mansfield Park. She only wrote six novels and she’s not expected to write anymore. I also want to read Thomas Mann’s famous novella Death in Venice. I saw the 1971 Luchino Visconti film years ago and think it’s time to read the short book. I’m not sure if I read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when I was younger. I want to read Twain this year and that’s the book I want to start with.

But who knows if I will get around to reading those books. There are more modern books I want to read. Duncan Jones, David Bowie’ s son, has announced a book club based on the list of his dad’s top 100 books. The first book is Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, which I have a copy. I also want to read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society because the film is coming out in April. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Booker Prize and I want to read one of the early winners, G by John Berger. Still, I hope I can read a majority of classic novels this year and that would make me happy.

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