I am a self-professed bookworm. This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. The library is one of my greatest weaknesses; it feels utterly delectable to come out with a stack of books when I only meant to return one. Like Rory Gilmore, I think it’s imperative to always have a book with me. I’ve learned this the hard way, from wasted hours in waiting rooms or biding time before an event with no reading material. (I don’t take this to extremes, mind you, but I more often than not at least have a book in my car.) I was an English major. Yet I have not read, and do not particularly want to read, many of the books in the so-called canon.
That’s right, I just typed that out loud.
My alma mater didn’t help me with this. I took Surveys of American Lit and British Lit in high school for college credit, and the reading load was much lighter than it would have been in college. Also, as a somewhat progressive liberal arts school, my beloved university chose to read outside the lines and include many more modern, international, regional, and ethnic works than most schools. I skated by without even taking Shakespeare until my last semester, and though I ended up loving it, I hadn’t missed it until then. Yet I feel woefully unprepared to enter into conversation with English majors from any other place, because I know the topic will come up: what’s you’re favorite book? And I’ll have to admit that, currently, it may just be The Hunger Games or some other “unacceptable” piece of current literature.
That’s right, I just typed that out loud too.
But why don’t I like classic books? I started out okay. My childhood began with my mother reading me The Wind in the Willows and my father sharing The Just-So Stories. I progressed to the Little House books, which I loved because they were practically about me, since my name is Laura. But somewhere in there, the literary smut crept in. I developed a taste for Lurlene McDaniel and The Babysitter’s Club. I did my summer reading, of course, but sometimes it was a struggle, especially the year we were assigned The Hobbit. It took me the entire summer to read because I couldn’t follow the plot, hated the characters, and kept having to start over because I didn’t know what was going on. Perhaps it was all downhill from there.
I’ve enjoyed the occasional literary giant. I didn’t hate Beowulf, and I seem to remember enjoying Tess of the d’Urbervilles, though I can’t for the life of me remember or imagine why. But perhaps the nail in the coffin for my taste for the classics came with Pride and Prejudice. I liked the first sentence. You can’t argue that the first sentence is not impeccably drafted with a certain timeliness to it that sets a great tone for the rest of the novel. But the rest of it? I hated it. The female race may disown me once this post goes live, but I have to admit it. I hated Pride and Prejudice.
(For the record, I gave Jane Austen a few more tries and liked some other ones better, and I love the movie version of Sense and Sensibility, but for the most part she does nothing for me.)
I’ve tried to figure out what it is about the classics that I don’t enjoy. When I read the current books that keep me turning the pages and staying up late to finish chapter after chapter, I am often disparaging of the author’s choice of vocabulary, the stilted dialogue, and the cheesy and predictable plot turns. You’d think I’d be a perfect candidate for promoting well-written literature that has stood the test of time. But I’m not.
Here are some reasons I’ve started to flesh out, though I still can’t quite put my finger on the root of the issue.
- The emotional timbre of bygone eras doesn't resonate with me. I read to escape myself, and I find nothing more satisfying than having a vicarious cry or floating on the cloud of someone else's romance. Mr. Darcy's repressed proposal letter just won't cut it. I can't seem to like characters who don't wear their hearts on their sleeves.
- I can't relate to the lifestyle of many of the books. I think I would have been bored to tears being a lady in a Jane Austen novel! I always wonder what they did all day and how they found life fulfilling in the slightest. With books like Little House on the Prairie, I had my answer to that, so perhaps that's why they escape my wrath.
- I need at least one more bullet point here; my high school English teacher taught me never to end with two points if you can't come up with a third. But maybe that is my point: that I just don't exactly know why I don't like classic novels. I'm reading The House of Mirth right now, and I don't hate it, but it's not consuming me like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo did. I don't find myself dying to go read it; rather, it's more of an effort. Once I sit down and do it, it's okay, but it's doesn't draw me in completely. And that's what I like about books. That's what the classics don't seem to offer me.
So, help me out here: If you’re a proponent of the classic novel, tell me why and what book I should read to convince me. Or if, like me, you’d rather read fiction of today, give me your rationale.
Maybe I can adopt some points from both sides and make myself into a true, well-read young lady. Though I might grapple with what “well-read” even means. What is the canon, and why is it so? What makes a book a “good book”? But that’s a post for another day…