Aug 21, 2010

How to read the classics

Note: This post was a guest post on Desert Book Chick, check out Amanda’s blog for, some excellent book blogging and blogging in general.

A personal story

In a moment I will tell you about how to read classics.  It will be a suggestion, a guide. There are no hard and fast rules in this reading game and I think it would be dreadfully presumptuous of me to tell you exactly how you should approach Austen, Dickens or Tolstoy.

This is a story about rediscovering the classics, about two ways in which I have approached reading them.

Long ago

I graduated an English major, (a shock to many who read my postings) concentrating on Elizabethan, then American 19th century and post-war literature.  The approach was, and I guess still is, to have students read the selected texts usually within the week and to discuss it at tutorial.  You’d rip through one work and be on to the next without skipping a beat.

It developed in me no love of literature, indeed I can barely remember the texts read. Students tended to focus on one text rather than gain a wider appreciation. My reading habits since have remained chiefly those I developed through my love of reading as a child – science fiction and fantasy.

Being lured back

Fast forward nearly 20 years later and I am approaching classics from a different angle and one that is showing promise.  I credit this to coming across Francine Prose’s Reading like a Writer.  She’s an advocate for close reading and close reading of the classics.   She draws out the strengths of the classic novelists, showing how they develop character, use words or paragraphs.  

Good writing entertains, great writing transforms…

or has the capacity to. I love Barry Eisler novels, well written, realistic spy thrillers that I can read in a day if I am not careful. They entertain but they don’t make me think or marvel at his choice of words.

Similarly I think the internet, while it brings with it such boons as free classic literature also helps us train ourselves into reading short attention span optimised text.  Transformation and reading of the classics needs a little bit of effort, and a little bit of preparation.  It’s like going to the gym for the first time, take it easy but give it a good old try.

Tips for navigating the classics

  1. Be kind to yourself and your brain; don’t begin to read classics when you are tired.
  2. Be prepared for it to be a little difficult (note I said difficult not boring), nothing good ever comes easy.
  3. Slow down your reading speed
  4. Enjoy the way it is written as much as the story being told
  5. Take your time

How’s it going for me?

I am currently a third of the way through Emma, by Jane Austen (I have never read Austen before).  It’s only now that I have adapted my reading to her style - a mixture of familiarity with the way she writes and the speed at which I read no doubt.  I am slowly beginning to enjoy the jokes, the excellent observation of character and Austen’s dialogue.


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