November 23, 2009

In Defense of Classics

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Lately, people have been defending their favorite genres, especially from the much hated 'fluff' term. I read a lot of different things. Take a look around here. This year especially I've been reading outside my comfort zone. Some might even suggest many of those books fall into the fluffy category but my real love is classics. Yes, I read dead people.

Now most of the commenting on these blog posts are of the 'fill your boots' variety. People don't care what you  read, as long as you read. I agree with that but I'm also feeling people are quick to write off the classics. It's okay to diss classics but hands off everything else. I feel almost like people think I'm a literary snob for liking them. I'm starting to feel guilty about liking them and trying to defend them. I feel like people are taking what I'm saying the wrong way and it's frustrating.

Classics aren't just for pipe smoking guys in tweed jackets (pardon me if you like tweed jackets). They're for everyone. And here's the thing if you read one classic you haven't read them all. It's not a genre. If you read Jane Austen and hated it that doesn't mean you hate classics, it means you hate Jane Austen! There's a wide variety to choose from and you might have a favorite book that you don't even know is a classic.

Finding a definition for classic books is a hard one. I like this definition it's pretty much what I think but I'll tell you mine. I've been part of an online classics book club for years and are selections have a huge time range, and cross all genres. To qualify it must be at least 20 years old and be readily available to most members (I say most because it's not always easy to find even the common books everywhere). Meaning it's never gone out of print because if it hasn't there is a reason why.

So knowing this you got a lot of choices. Like sci-fi? Mary Shelley, HG Wells are for you. Romance? Gone with the Wind. Want to feel that your life is fantastic? Read Thomas Hardy- everybody dies. Women's issues? The Handmaid's Tale. New York society? Edith Wharton. Dystopian? 1984, Fahrenheit 451. Just want to have fun? The Three Musketeers. Young people making bad choices with little parental supervision? Wuthering Heights. There is something for every taste, 'literary,' 'fluff' whatever. Bleak House by Charles Dickens has spontaneous human combustion! For reals!

Want to try a classic? Tell me what you like and I'll make you a suggestion. If you don't like it, that's fine. I won't be too hurt. And it goes both ways. Do you feel that I'm missing out on something? Suggest it to me and I'll try to read it next year. But make it a good one. I only want your best picks.

Or you can tell me:

What is your favorite classic book?


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51 comments :

  1. Good post and don't you feel guilty about it! I like classics. I would have to say Les Miz and A Tale of Two Cities are a few of my favorites. I remember reading Henry James A Portrait of a Lady and enjoyed it, then found out that people think it's hard. Sometimes, the less I know what people think about these 'classics' the better. I just like to jump in. The 'oldest' book I've read recently is Chopin's The Awakening. I'm about to get sucked into Moby Dick, too. The read-along recaps are so fun!

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  2. Chris, I am so with you on this one! As a bookseller, my (least) favorite objection to the classics has got to be: "they sound so old." To me, the amazing thing about classics is how they emerge from the past but yet seem so timelessly relevant to the present.

    Here's a toast to one of my favorite classics of all time, To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf:

    http://justthebookstore.blogspot.com/2009/11/thinking-of-thanksgiving-check-out-one.html

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  3. Love your post! I usually think back 50 years to count something as a classic. If you go back just 20 years, wow, you really ARE including tons of wonderful things. Most of my favorites of all time are classics, and I can't imagine not surrounding myself with them.

    Some of my favorites: Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights, The Forsythe Saga....

    I really need to get that Bleak House read for sure now! :)

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  4. Thanks for this great post, Chris! I feel the same way about Really Old Classics. People dismiss them as "too old" and "boring" and "too much like school" but they haven't given them a chance in a brand spanking new translation and they really can be tons of fun!! Maybe the one someone read for school wasn't the best approach and maybe the one they read for school was just plain bad for them. I wish people would give "them" (in general) a chance again.

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  5. Thank you for reminding me that classics is not a genre! So often of late, when I try a classic and don't like it, I think classics are just not for me anymore. But now I realize I just haven't found the right kind. I love Bradbury, find Austen dull.

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  6. Care- I loved The Awakening. It's a short one too. I keep putting off Moby Dick but now there is going to be a movie. Maybe that will get people to read it. Sorry though I'm not a James fan :(

    Margie- People are people no matter when they lived, so the stories are going to connect with us.

    Suey- yeah, we're a little lose with the classics rules but mostly we read stuff at least 50 yrs old. Steinbeck's a popular one.

    Rebecca- I think school ruins classics for a lot of people. I love teachers and it's not their fault but it's how those books are expected to be taught. I wish they could get kids excited about them and get them to talk about them instead of using them to teach symbolism and all that.

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  7. Jeane- Great! I hope you find one for you. Have you read 1984? It's really dark but interesting.

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  8. Great post. I've been reading and re-reading some favorites through read-alongs and challenges, and find the whole category pretty wonderful. Favorite? Hmmm...hard to say...Charlotte Bronte's Villette comes to mind, which I re-read this summer and loved. Or Woolf's To the Lighthouse. I'm reading the Canterbury Tales for the Really Old Classics Challenge, we'll see what I think when I get into it.

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  9. Without a doubt, my favorite classic is East of Eden by Steinbeck, no contest. I hope people will join in with the classics book club for bloggers we're creating, it is going to start in January.

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  10. Amy- Really loved Jane Eyre but still haven't read Villette. I really should.

    Jen- I read that. Such a good book. I loved the theme of good and evil throughout. Cathy was just nasty!

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  11. Yay for the Classics! I agree with you wholeheartedly. I feel people put down the Classics as boring when they mean difficult - and even that is a misnomer as not all Classic novels are prosaic, complex tracts with four-syllable words and incomprehensible themes. Actually, most classics aren't like that.

    Also, while I agree with the 'as long as you're reading' claim to an extent, I really think we lose out as a society when people stop reading the Classics. We minimize our cultural heritage and our ability to have shared experiences and references.

    Okay, I'll stop preaching to the choir now. :)

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  12. Trisha- It's like saying we don't need museums or that people don't enjoy museums. People do!

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  13. Love it, love it, love it! As a big fan of classics *and* fluff (a term which offends me not at all), I love your enthusiasm! :-) War & Peace and A Tale of Two Cities are in my Top 5 classics. And The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And if you want to *really* get old, The Iliad is fabulous!

    Lezlie

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  14. My favorite has to be Anna Karenina, being a total sucker for Russian literature in general, and Tolstoy in particular. I love the classics! Every time I read one, it makes other novels seem trite. (Most of the time.) You're right, if you've read one, you haven't read them all!

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  15. The first 'adult' classic book I fell in love with was Their eyes were watching God when I was 16. I had never read prose like Hurston wrote and I was hooked. I've since fallen in love with Gone With The Wind, Pride and Prejudice, Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre...I'll stop now. I think you get the point.

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  16. Great post. I must say agree with u on all points. I have been ridiculed for liking classics. I couldn't help reading them after I started out with classics. They are something I can't do without.

    I probably have most of the classics at home as my parents love reading (at least dad does, mom just loves seeing us engrossed in the fat books:) ) So I have a bookshelf filled with classics.

    I feel ppl categorize it based on prejudices and miss out on some wonderful literary pieces.

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  17. Hear, hear!

    I've got to say that my favorite classics are those from the 'adventure' category-- anything by Dumas or H. Rider Haggard. :D I used to read classics all the time, but after starting my blog, I've deviated away from them and only pick up more modern reads. I think I need to go back ;p

    Great post!

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  18. I love to read cclassics. Sometimes I don't understand why they are considered such, but for the most part I appreciate and love them. One I've been thinking I must re-read soon is The Awakening by Kate Chopin. Great post.

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  19. Jane Eyre, hands down. Not only is this my favorite classic, but it is my favorite book of all time. Also I just read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time this summer and I was blown away. What an amazing book. And so relevant for today.

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  20. My objection to "most" classics is that they are by and large depressing. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but the notion of tragedy and literary greatness being intertwined is something that is still too pervasive.

    My favorite classics are those that generally don't have a body count. Which means I prefer Shakespeare's sonnets to his tragedies or histories. That I prefer Austen to the Bronte sisters. And that I have to really scour the shelves to find a classic that matches my own personal preferences.

    That doesn't mean that people shouldn't read classics. They should. They're part of our cultural lexicon. But they shouldn't feel plebian if they don't enjoy them.

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  21. Also...Bleak House? Seriously?

    TWO narrators and over 1,000 pages of Dickensian names.

    *shudder*

    It does, however, have one of the very first uses of 'detective'...Mr. Bucket...who predates Holmes by several decades.

    Any recommendations for 'happy' classics are welcome :)

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  22. This is a great post, no one should have to feel guilty for liking the classic - they're what started all the joyous book reading! Ok so my recs for classics have to be 'The Picture of Dorian Grey' by Oscar Wilde, 'Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep' by Philip K Dick and 'The Count of Monte Cristo' whcih is massive but lots of fun!

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  23. I love classics. Recommendation: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Victorian thriller. for mystery buffs and literary fiction readers.

    Beginning sentence: "This is the story of what a Woman's patience can endure, and what a Man's resolution can achieve.”

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  24. You're so right about classics transcending genres. I have never considered that before, but it's true. They are classics for exactly the reason of transcending genre! I don't read as many as I should as I think they can be intimidating, much like poetry can be. Also, I think classics are MADE for discussion. I would love to be in a classics book group...

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  25. Everytime I read a classic I think to myself, wow, how come I didn't read that before. I've got like 50 on my shelf at the moment just staring at me with my good intentions staring back! I love them and I need to read more of them.

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  26. Favorite classics of mine include:

    The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne
    The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
    Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes
    The Pearl of Orr's Island by Harriet Beecher Stowe
    Moby Dick by Herman Melville
    The Red House Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle

    Happy reading!

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  27. I love classics too but I do not feel comfortable 'reviewing' them on my blog. My favorite is Moll Flanders by Defoe or Fanny Burney's Cecilia. I also love Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. So no you do not have to feel like a snob. I can go from Cecilia to Forest of Hands and Teeth, I really do not care what others think about what I read. Truthfully people think probably I only read YA, while lining my shelves are histories of the Ottoman Empire and 12th Century Aquatiane, so I guess I am not really and 'idiot fluff reader' I just play one on the internet :P

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  28. I recently finished Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth - Edith Wharton is my new favorite!

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  29. Lezlie- War & Peace is one of those books that scares people because of it's size. Once you get past all the crazy names it's good.

    Dolce- I have to admit the Russians are hard for me.

    Bookshelf- I keep meaning to read that.

    Shona- No one should be made fun of because of what that read.

    She- Dumas is fun to read.

    Stacy- Some are just fun to read.

    Amy- I tried to read Grapes of Wrath recently but it made me so sad because of what is happening today.

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  30. Buried- Depressing doesn't bother me. I read a lot of modern depressing books anyway. As for happy, George Eliot usually has happy endings. Anne of Green Gables, The Moonstone. Dumas is mostly just swashbuckling & adventure.

    Jodie- Monte Cristo is big but I enjoyed the revenge part.

    Barbara- I haven't had time for The Woman in White yet. I really need to read it.

    Aarti- They do make for great discussions whether you love them or hate them.

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  31. Natasha- Right now I have more unread than read on my shelves. I need to change that.

    Puss- I haven't read any of those! Where have I been?

    Pam- I'll talk about everything I read on my blog. Even if I'm not qualified to discuss it ;)

    Carrie- Wharton is good too, not happy but good.

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  32. Thank you, Chris, for the suggestions. I've read all of LM Montgomery.

    I'm having trouble recalling a happy George Eliot novel, though. Middlemarch isn't particularly happy. And I think the Mill on the Floss ends badly.

    I have not read the Moonstone.

    Most of the happy classics were written for children. I think I'll have to stick with those.

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  33. I agree. I like newer stuff, but I love me some classics.

    I love Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead. I also liked The Scarlet Letter. Good stuff.

    -Jacki
    www.lovelylittleshelf.com

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  34. Great post, Chris! You're right that it's very interesting that it seems to be OK to criticize classics but nothing else without being labeled a book snob....

    Which is why I'm proudly embracing the title. I really don't mind that other people read what I think of as "fluff," but I'd prefer the substantial stuff. If that makes me a snob, then so be it.

    I really appreciate your point that classics are not a genre and that having a negative experience with one doesn't mean you'll hate them all.

    I love love love Dickens and Hawthorn, but Austen and the Bronte sisters? Not so much. THE SCARLET LETTER is my favorite classic.

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  35. I love the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but I don't know if it's considered a classic or not.

    I also love Jane Austen.

    I have a lot of classics on my shelves. (Dickens, Homer, Tolstoy, Wharton, Dumas, Hawthorne, Hardy, etc.) Some I've read, most I haven't. I look forward to reading them all eventually.

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  36. Yes; 1984 is one of my favorites.

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  37. I'm toying with the idea of reading The Count of Monte Cristo. So tell me why I should. ;-)

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  38. Great post! I'm open to reading all kinds of books, but my heart belongs to the classics. Almost all my favorite books are considered (at least by some) to be classics, and they seem to have the most rewards for me.

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  39. Buried- Did you see the 'new' Montgomery- The Blythes Are Quoted? I really like Eliot's Silas Marner.

    Jacki- I read Atlas. Man, that was a big book!

    Rebecca- Yes, we must take back the fluff or snob title. We must own it.

    Queen- Definitely count LOTR!

    Jill- Here's why: Edmond Dantes! Jailed for years for something he didn't do, he learns the art of revenge. And then he takes his time and makes everybody who crossed him pay. And they all deserve it.

    Teresa- Yay, another fan!

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  40. In almost every case, I feel happy when I try a classic. Many have loved the book and shared their thoughts about the book. The love is usually well deserved.

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  41. I love me some classics, though I've been dreadfully slow to read them this year. A favorite?? Oh lordy. I'll go with The Great Gatsby because I've re-read it the most, but there's a herd of others biting at its proverbial ankles.

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  42. There are a lot of classic books that I really enjoy. Jane Eyre is definitely my favorite, but there's Phantom of the Opera, Age of Innocence, Pride & Prejudice, etc. etc.

    I think people will definitely start reading more classics soon. If you can download them for free online, why not?

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  43. Hit a nerve, didn't you? I like some classics and not others, same as with most books. My favorites are Bleak House - it's fabulous! CD is the master of a page turner - you can see why he was a best seller and folks waited eagerly for the next edition.

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  44. *schnif* It was such a treat to read this post. I'm adding you to my feed.

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  45. I have two favorites:

    Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.

    I re-read them every couple of years.

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  46. i'm forever pimping classics at school--and the students actually get into them! some favorites? 'a raisin in the sun', 'the glass menagerie', 'of mice and men' and 'romeo and juliet'.

    the students really do respond to these works--especially when i play cds/audio so they can hear the plays and novels being performed. as a culmination, we usually watch a bit (or all) of the movies. i teach some basic skills classes and it really helps the students grasp the imagery and characterization. :)

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  47. I love Middlemarch and The Maltese Falcon, but there are so many more I'm fond of, like Little Women.

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  48. A few of my favorite classics are East of Eden, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Yellow Wallpaper. . .

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  49. The only Dostoeyevsky i've read was House of the Dead and it is a favorite. Austen of course. how about Dracula!

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  50. Great post Chris. As you know, I love the classics too. Though I haven't read many lately. I don't care if some people think we are book snobs for it. I think that most are just scared of the classics because of how they had to dissect them in high school.

    Keep on reading and reviewing the classics. I love reading your reviews.

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  51. I came over here from Kittling books, so I'm late. Just wanted to say that one definition of a classic is a book that's stood the test of time--so statistically, that should mean you'll be disappointed less than if you pick up the latest things and try them out.

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