A Mere Introduction to Classics

Have you wanted to get into reading classic literature, but not known how or where to start? It’s a daunting undertaking even for those of us who are inclined toward liking older writing. The term “classic” is broad and applied differently almost every time it’s used, which makes something as basic as determining what constitutes as a “classic” difficult, much less deciding which ones you might want to read! So, rather than simply suggesting a list of books, this post is about how to research and determine what classics you might enjoy most (and why you might want to give them a try in the first place).

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At a basic level, there are four things to consider when picking out classic literature:

1. Genre

The term “classic” encompasses nearly every other genre imaginable: sci-fi, fantasy, romance, suspense, mystery, slice-of-life, tragedies, literary, dystopian, adventure, coming-of-age, satire, poetry, plays—just to name a few. This is part of why delving into classics can be overwhelming, but it also means there’s a greater chance that you’ll find a book you’ll truly enjoy. It should go without saying, then, to look for classics that belong to your most beloved genres. If you’re new to picking up older literature, you’ll be more likely to adapt to the differences if the story is one you find enjoyable. A quick internet search for “classic fantasy,” “classic sci-fi,” “classic dystopian,” or “classic mysteries” will give you dozens of lists that you can peruse and cross-reference to create a TBR list.

2. Time Period

Every classic reader I know has preferences about what literary eras they prefer. I tend to like 19th century best, regardless of genre and country of origin, although I also like ones from the 18th and 20th centuries. It’s my “sweet spot,” if you will. The trick will be to find yours! First, consider what periods of history already interest you. Reading books from that time period is an amazing way to understand more about the culture of that era—and it doubles as another hook to draw you into the story. Second, consider your “tolerance,” if you will, for older or different language. The further back you go, the more likely the language will be far different from modern usage, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be impossible to read and enjoy. Considering working your way into a given time period by reading shorter pieces, like individual poems or novellas, before diving into full novels. Also, give yourself a “buffer time” to adapt to an author’s style before giving up on it. Often it’s taken me a few chapters (at least) to adapt to an author’s style, and then a few more before I truly enjoy it! The same is true for modern writing, as well, but pay special mind when dealing with more challenging prose and you’ll set yourself up for more success.

3. Country/Region/Culture/Language

The same principle about time period applies here—but is, however, often more specific than mere time period or, when combined with a specific time period, will result in a very niche interest. However narrowly you go about it, I suggest starting with a country or region that either interest you already or you have some connection to through your own family or culture. What better way than to learn more about your home country or where your family originated from; a certain region of the world you’ve always found intriguing; or a people group or culture you want to better understand? There’s no wrong choice here, since the goal is to set yourself up for success by finding books that are similar to what you already like while also branching out into new literary territory. Also, consider that choosing books written in your non-native language will mean also choosing translators! For example, I enjoy Russian literature, and there are several English translators available for the big name classics (Garnett, Pevear and Volokhonsky, McDuff, Katz, Bartlett, etc.). Each translation has its own style, so the only way to know which you prefer is to try them out. Thankfully, you can often read quotes from different editions and find reviews from other readers that will help you determine what copy to choose.

4. Cultural Effect

What makes a “classic” truly classic? That’s a debate I have no desire to enter. However, one marker of a story reaching the “classic” status is its effect upon culture at large. Some books retain their fame because they were the first or most popular example of a particular movement, era, or philosophy; some books retain their fame because they were well-loved by a general audience and still are to this day; some books retain their fame because of scandal, either when they were first published or later on; some books retain their fame for their unusual use of language, story structure, or characters. And, in truth, some books retain their fame for no discernible reason! But all have a lingering effect upon their sphere of influence, which is often a sign that a book will be worth your time—either because it’s truly worthy of being so popular, or because it will give you a first-hand look at an aspect of history or culture. Studying primary historical sources is vital for so many reasons; there are many stories that I never grew to love or perhaps never even liked, but I’m glad to have read because of their significance. So, when considering what classics you might pick up, also weigh their cultural effect; there are valuable reading experiences to be had beyond entertainment.

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I’ll end with two pieces of advice. First, judge classics with humility. Within the pages of famous tomes lies many things—some great, some small—which we now consider immoral, insensitive, and offensive. That knowledge is a good thing, but it can also make us view history in a way that both distorts our understanding and, whether we mean it or not, puffs up our sense of superiority. Always remember that no story, and no author, will ever be perfect, regardless of time period. Always remember that our time, our stories, and our culture will one day be history that will be judged—do you wish to be given no mercy for what you inevitably get wrong? This is not the same as excusing wrong beliefs, or coming to agree with what you know isn’t true. Critical thinking is not an all-or-nothing scenario. You might love a story and still see where the author was wrong; you might enjoy a time period, perhaps even miss some things that they got right more than we do, and also point out where they failed. You might only be able to find merit in a classic novel because of your object analysis, not any personal enjoyment. You might even be unable to finish a story that others can because you can’t get over particular prejudices, beliefs, or immoral content woven into the story. We all have thresholds for what we are able to read and what we can’t. But always judge literature with the knowledge that you and I are all capable of the same moral blindness and the same mistakes (purposeful or not) as people in the past. Be as fair in your assessment as you can be. Don’t be a timeline elitist. This goes for anything, classic book or not.

Second, you won’t like some classics. You might not like most classics. You might not like any classics! Don’t put pressure on yourself to enjoy a book just because so many other people have. You are not every book’s target audience; a book can be everything it’s supposed to be and still not be for you. I prefer classics because they suit almost all of my reading preferences, while it’s rare that I’ll even be tempted to pick up modern literature (especially YA). You might be the opposite. Who knows? But also give classics their fair shot! Perhaps you won’t like very many of them, but you may find one or two or three that steal your heart or expand your mind—and the only way you’ll find them is if you give them a chance. To go back to my personal analogy, I have read modern literature that I’ve truly enjoyed. That may not be my go-to, but I won’t refuse a book written within my lifetime purely because it’s contemporary. I would’ve missed out on some great writing if I were so strict. A fair shot sometimes means, too, that you come back to a book after a few months or years when you’re in the right place to read it. Perhaps it’s the mood reader in me, but stories have seasons, and seasons change. What you couldn’t stand in high school might be a delight as an adult; what you never thought to even glance at last year might be just what you’re interested in this year. Allow yourself to explore and try without pressure to perform. Hopefully, you’ll end up with a classic or two that shows you just why it earned that title.

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