Did you just call me an idiot? No, I said I enjoy reading the classics.

A literary classic. A classic of literature. A great work. A work of genius. A masterpiece. A classic. The classics.

You know War & Peace? It’s a classic. Les Miserables? A classic, too. And Jane Eyre. And Plato’s Republic. And Moby Dick. And Hamlet is a classic, as well. We call them all classics. It’s our shorthand way of assigning them a special place. Of differentiating them from others by their value to humanity, their enduring qualities, universal appeal and their apparent excellence.

Classic. The word seems harmless enough and yet when I say I enjoy reading the classics or I prefer reading the classics, I often find I have offended someone. At first I thought it was just my manner – I can be a bit of a prig – but then I realised it was more than this. The word classic itself seems to offend people.  Sounds silly, but if I say ‘classic‘ and you hear ‘you’re an idiot‘ the word and the idea can suddenly seem far from harmless.

But why would anyone hear “you’re an idiot‘ when the word ‘classic‘ is used in conversation?

As someone who found himself in the bottom English class during the last three years of school, I have some idea how this can happen. While the smart kids in the top English classes were doing the classics – Thomas Hardy, Shakespeare and Jane Austen – we were making finger puppets.

When we heard the smart kids moaning about having to write essays on the classic writers, bitching about those impenetrable ‘texts’, and saw them biting their nails while reading the battered paperbacks in the playground, many of us were thankful all we were asked to debate was whether the thumb was a true finger or not.

But soon, we, the dummies, realised that there was a subtle change in the way the smart kids were behaving. Having read a classic work and written the attendant essay it was apparent they were pleased with themselves. A teenager does not carry accomplishment well. A certain haughtiness had crept into their manner. Those who had successfully completed their tasks now spoke of the classics in another way altogether. They had crossed into another realm, as it were. They were part of the elite now. The smartest of the smart. (Of course, socially, this meant we had to tear them limb from limb.)

I realised later, that while we were being taught to fear the classics in the bottom English classes, most of the smart kids in the top classes were being trained to hate the ‘classics’. Even those smart kids who seemed most to enjoy the experience, those who read more widely among the classics than was required, stopped reading them when their formal education was completed. Which seemed to reveal their real relationship with the books. They were a chore. They were a means to an end.

If you were in the bottom English, like I was, you may well hear – you’re an idiot – when anyone mentions the classics. It is only natural. Almost instinctual. The end result of all of those years of training. A reaction which is tinged with sadness not anger.

The angry reaction is reserved for those who read and studied the classics at school and university. Many of these people continue to live under the impression that they have done the classics. And as many of their peers shared their experience at school they can still afford to adopt a truly proprietorial air with the subject. Whenever the word ‘classic’ is uttered amongst their circle of friends, the self-same murmurs of delight, awe and wonder are heard – both as an acknowledgement and a dismissal of the subject.

In those educated circles any further expression of interest in the classics is unwelcome. Anyone insensitive enough to pursue the subject, or worse, to declare a present passion for them, will only draw the ire of their hearers. Why? In such a moment the esteem these people borrowed when studying the classics as youths must be paid back. They suddenly stop hearing classic and hear instead - you’re an idiot. For in that moment the classics have ceased to be their tame pets and have become the beasts they truly are and the educated are revealed as frauds, of sorts. The learnt response of the educated is to lie about the minor details of their qualifications. What they have or have not read, for instance.

The trouble with such a state of affairs is this: not enough people are reading the classics for pleasure. Those taught to fear them at school approach them with an exaggerated caution. The classic is venerated as it is more often than not regarded as a symbol of intelligence. It is an accomplishment to have read one. This often leads those excluded from them as youths to make a study of them as adults. This course of action fails even if it succeeds because such readers believe they must understand every word, comprehend every idea, visualise every description and soon become either frustrated with the books and give up the task or continue out of stubbornness turning what might have been a delightful read into the equivalent of trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone and failing.

Those who have done the classics, the educated, rarely approach them as adults, but if they do (bloody book club), they do so with great impatience. Believing they shouldn’t be forced to return down that path, sure that they’ve probably read it before, but recognising that others will expect them to have read it, they read only to be reminded, making a show of reading quickly, skimming through the pages merely to rediscover ‘the gist’ of the book.

Pride and Prejudice. The two main impediments to our general enjoyment of the classics. Pride in our past glories. Prejudice against our own capabilities.

Reading the classics as adults is one of life’s greatest pleasures. And I encourage everyone to overcome the pride and prejudices which inhibit the enjoyment of them. You did not sanction these prejudices, they were thrust upon you and it is time they were discarded. And pride? Welcome the fall.

Read the classics casually. Take them as you find them. Build up a collection so that you may fit your mood to the right book. Read a few pages, if you don’t like what you read, persevere for a few more pages, then if your opinion is unchanged, try another. There is no way you’ll ever understand everything a great work has to say. If you don’t get something, read on. It may not be that important. If it is, you’ll discover more further along. The more classics you read, the more you’ll enjoy and understand. Knowledge isn’t a shot in the arm, but cumulative process. A person’s taste in literature is not fixed, either. Reading the classics will expand your tastes in literature, art, history, philosophy and on and on. The classics are not a genre.

The classics, or the greats, or literature, or however you may describe the masses of excellent writing produced by humanity, are not a homogeneous whole. They are as diverse as humans are diverse. They stomp across the narrow confines of genre, they defy such classification. Their only shared attribute is that they recommend themselves to you by their superiority as heartily as history recommends them to you by repute. In each you will see reflected yourself, your friends, your family, your hopes, your failures, your lies, your loves and your moments of disgrace.

The classics can never be done. No one has ever read all of the classics.  Forgotten classics are being re-discovered. And, believe it or not, classics are still being written. They are never a part of your past. They are never part of humanity’s past. As long as we retain our humanity they are ever present.

If you enjoyed this post you may enjoy reading
Five classics  I want to read again and why.

And you may like to investigate The Dead Writers Club

5 Responses

  1. Was in the middle English class at school (btw, can’t believe you were in the bottom – and they did interesting books in the bottom like ‘Lord of the Flies’) and had to do such tomes as ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Have continued to read since school – would find it difficult to contemplate life without reading. Since the late 20th C, have developed a taste for ‘classics’ (although Hardy still sticks in my throat). Read in a newspaper literary review years ago that Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ was the best novel ever written, but only 5% of readers possess the ability to read it. RIGHT! a challenge… Penguin paperback…. copious margin notes… ‘Spark Notes’ and many, many internet references later and I joined the 5% – now they can’t call me an idiot… right?

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  2. I read some pretty fun classics at school & in my undergrad, ie. Frankenstein, Emma, Dr Moreau, a lot of modern lit. I also fell in love with Shakespeare (more at Uni than in high school), but I understand I’m pretty rare in liking the books I studied! I love reading a balance of books old and new: classics, potential classics, and fun-with-substance. I agree with you that classics should be approached casually (& openly). Do the thinking/analysing afterwards, if you want to. There are so many wonderful books to discover, and enjoy.

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  3. I couldn’t stop nodding as I read this post. I don’t class “the classics” as a genre either, and it puzzles me that people are taught to be afraid of literature. They’re just books.

    (Okay. anything by James Joyce gives me the screaming heebie jeebies, but apart from that…books aren’t scary AT ALL)

    I try to explain this to people who question my reading habits all the time, but usually their eyes have already glazed over and they’re glaring at me because they think I’ve just called them idiots. Heh.

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  4. I’m not sure if this qualifies as a classic, but a writing mentor a few years ago told me I MUST (more emphasis than capital letters imply) read AS Byatt’s ‘Posession’. Dutifully I bought it and have attempted to read it at least half a dozen times including when I had a lovely block of time for uninterrupted reading. Try as I might this book does not engage me.
    I have now reached the point in my life where if a book doesn’t engage me in the first few pages I will (even if I have paid good money for it) put it aside and try it again at another time. If I am not engaged this time I will try a third but that is all. Life is too short and there are so many books written in the last 30 years that I barely have had the time to read.
    And as Stella says – each to their own.

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  5. This is a very interesting take on a familiar theme. The classics are sometime perceived as a chore because we are told ‘we must’ read them. For a whole host of reasons, they are often read as tasks to be ticked off. Not all of them are easy to read. I would rather stick hot pins in my eyes than read Hardy. Ever. Return of the Native makes me want to throw myself under the nearest passing horse. We do, however, own not one but three copies of it!

    Given me Anna K or Ulysses and I’ll read them like the marathon books they are. Each to there own.

    I agree that the reading of such books used to mark out the well educated. In the present day are such distinctions still as valid? Time will tell. It is hard to see how their lessons and allegories will be taken up elsewhere. How will the allusions, on which literature depends, continue without reading and re-reading of these books?

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