Friday, 26 November 2010

A Classic is Being Destroyed As We Speak!

The Classics. Books we're are supposed to revere and adore. Characters that have stood the test of time. Beautiful, lyrical language.

However, in most cases, our first encounter with these beloved books is during English Literature class - we pick over every word, analyze them to death, write essays ad infinitum on the character motivations and WHY the author used that particular word at that point.

And the classics are thereafter pretty much destroyed for you. That first experience often colours your desire to read anything else deemed to be a "classic".

I've read woefully few classics. I'm yet to read anything by Austen OR the Bronte sisters, can you believe? I haven't read Wuthering Heights or Crime and Punishment or any book by Charles Dickens. It is a huge gap in my reading.

The two novels particularly ruined for me were Tess of the d'Urbervilles and A Handmaid's Tale.

I was interested in whether other people had the same experiences as I, and asked Twitter which novels had been destroyed for them. Here are a selection of the replies:

@Laughablefellow - A-Level ruined A Handmaid's Tale for me - picking over its corpse for 6 months!

@benhunt - All of Hardy. It was The Woodlanders specifically but since then I can't bear any Hardy.

@Pallekenl - Not so much destroyed as squeezed dry: Pride and Prejudice. I loved that book, must have read ten times. And after writing an essay on it I just never could read it for pleasure anymore. Kept analyzing.

@Danacea - Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness". Was like wading through swampy treacle. Blech!!

@JonCG_novelist - A Level English utterly destroyed Hardy, G Elliott and Chaucer. Shakespeare survived, just...

@sfbook - Animal Farm, I still shudder when that book (or even the author's name) is mentioned.

@ghostfinder - School totally destroyed Shakespeare for me. Utterly loathe anything to do with it now.

@trukkle - Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare. Many poems I thankfully can't remember right now were ruined forever too.

What are your experiences with the classics? Do you love them? Loathe them? Are you disgusted at the gaps in my reading? If you were to nominate just one classic I should read, which would it be?


  1. As much as I love the era in which most of the classis novels take place, I actually have a hard time sitting down and reading any of those classics themselves. It may well be because so many of them are required reading in schools; I don't know. I don't think there's anything wrong with reading the classics as mandatory educational reading, per se; they're classics for a reason, most of the time. But making them so does tend to ruin them for a remarkable number of people. I myself absolutely detested Hardy's "Mayor of Casterbridge." I may have enjoyed it had I approached it for my own interests on my own time, but as it is, I shudder to just think of that book.

    I suppose I'm one of the lucky ones who didn't have Shakespeare ruined for them, though I strongly suspect that's because I enjoyed acting so much that getting the chance to do so in class was a real treat for me. I had teachers who strongly encouraged us to act out scenes as projects, to help us understand the whole thing better. Could have been much worse, that's for certain!

  2. I didn't go anywhere near the both Romanian and International classics at some point. Although my grades were great I was heavily improvising and I was reading SF, crime and mystery. Only after a few years since finishing high-school I started looking at the classics :)

  3. I do like a good classic and did Eng Lit at uni which was great as I was introduced to so many different ones! Shakespeare was slightly ruined for me at uni as I literally could not stand the professor who taught it but I hope that I will enjoy it again in the future. I personally like my classics to be a little bit dark and brooding so I would definitely suggest Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. I love Jane Austen too, mainly because I have had a big literary crush on Mr Darcy since I was about 15!!

  4. I had a English teacher who loved Shakespeare, so we had nothing but Hamlet for about three months,that totally killed Shakespeare for me and most of my classmates.
    And I will not go near any of the Norwegian classics after school. Frankly, most of them are pants anyway.

    As for what you should read, I haven't read many classics. But Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott is my favourite classic of all time. You also have Frankenstein by Mar Shelley , who is both a classic and SF/Horror, and that is very good in my opinion.

  5. Shakespeare. All of it. My English Literature teacher made us go through about three plays in such minute detail, analysing and studying every word, I hated our 'reward' at the end which was to watch the play we had just studied. It basically put me off Shakespeare and I haven't gone back and read any since. Same with Dickens too.

  6. Us Romanians have (as probably any nation out there) a few authors that are considered "classics" and "must reads", authors like Marin Preda and Mircea Eliade, and even though they are fantastic writers, I had a hard time convincing myself to give them a change, solely for the reason you yourself invoked, the excessive analysis and nitpicking that were forced upon us in school.

    It's a shame that the teachers that should have instilled the love for reading and for the classics are the ones responsible for one of the greatest reasons most people (that I know) shun them.

    At the other end of the spectrum, I hate it when people think that just because someone has not read some of the mainstream classics, their favorite authors and works are somehow irrelevant or that their literary tastes are not that "formed", because they supposedly missed out.

  7. Of Porphyry Columns Made

    So, you're daunted by the classics of literature? And what would that be exactly? The word classic I believe, is misleading.

    There are great stories, told by masterly writers. There always have been. Some are very old indeed: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, Aeschylus' Oresteia, Aristophanes' Frogs, the Tale of Genji, Beowulf, Le Morte d'Arthur, The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, Don Quixote...

    Others are of more modern imprint and we hope, include those now fermenting in the minds of their authors-to-be.

    Where do you start or stop for that matter? Do you start with the English canon and move laterally into the wintry steppes and snow-covered streets of Russia? The French and Germans and their philosophical complexities massing on all fronts? Italian masterpieces of mouldering decadence the likes of Il Gattopardo? World literature from India, Africa, Japan and China? What of the American (both North and South) contributions? They are as vast and beguiling as the central plains and the pampas.

    Exploring the classics is such a broad undertaking as to defy any modern navigational scheme, within or without academia. Even there, these things must be broken down into more distinct classifications.

    My advice is to forget your hazy memories of A-level requirements and AP literature. Instead, travel backwards to the roots of our greatest stories. But don't stay there, hurtle back and forth through the ages. Sample at will, at random, and with delight and fickleness. Do not feel constrained or forced to travel a particular path or limit yourself to a few particular authors.

    All I think you need is patience and a willingness to explore this endless sphere of great literature. Ask those who you trust and suspect have traveled this road before you for recommendations. It is a journey of a lifetime and likely will take one but is well worth the effort - if reading great and wonderfully diverse books can be called such.



  8. I actually found that studying books at school and uni improved them for me. My friends all said they would never watch Pleasantville or read Pride & Prejudice again, but I found that analysing them made them way more accessible to me. For the first time, I got excited about the books - I felt like I was unlocking them. Finding deeper meanings in my favourite novels made them extra-special to me.

    I see by the other comments that I may be alone in this ...

  9. As an addendum to my tweet quoted above. I still love Austen and the classics (and as Eric states above that shouldn't just be limited to pre-20th century novels) and I'm still reading them, as my Way Beyond Retro thing on my blog can attest. But in the first year at university I couldn't even read SFF without analyzing it in the way I was being taught in class (luckily this passed). Alas for Pride and Prejudice, that means I've picked it apart so much that I can't put it back together anymore!

  10. I am grateful that I was introduced to the following: Of Mice and Men, by Steinbeck. To Kill a Mockingbird, by Lee. Flowers for Algernon, by Keyes. I appreciated Heart of Darkness much more after studying it.

    To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of my English teacher, but I don't think she "destroyed" anything for me.

    I've always felt that students wrongly blame their teachers for destroying texts. More often than not, I suspect, these students didn't study and refuse to admit their responsibility.

  11. I have read David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, I still have bittersweet memories from that tale, the characters and story will stay with me to until the end.
    I love this book more than any other; its probably because I had'nt read as much as I have now, but still...
    And this is'nt some children's book, in my opinion everyone must read it at least once in their lifetime

  12. I think I'm odd as I loved analysing stuff at school and was introduced to some of my favourite writers like that.
    If you haven't read Pride and Prejudice, stop what you're doing and go and read it.
    'It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife....'
    Mind you, much as I admire Hardy, I will never love him. Smile, love, it won't kill you is my advice to him.

  13. I'm so sad to read these comments. I'm actually disappointed that we didn't cover more classics in school, and that I have so many gaps yet to fill! I'm not sure whether it's the super-nerdy school I attended, or the fact that English and Lit were my pet subjects, but I had a fantastic time reading through some wonderful books. We were always told that we could argue whatever we wanted about a book so long as we had evidence to back it up, which I think kept things challenging and interesting.

  14. Thankfully we didn't go into as much excruciating detail as is described here, but I still haven't read much in the way of classics. I do believe that I tended to get more out of the books I read in my social studies classes (like Babbitt, Gatsby, The Jungle) than those dissected in English class, perhaps because there was more of a focus on the book as a whole and its era.

  15. I like classic lit in moderation. I often enjoy the stories, but I find the syntax a bit much. It takes me ages to unravel nineteenth century language, and I'm less likely to pick up a book when I know it'll take me forever to read.

    I do read them, though, and sometimes I fall in love. Daniel Defoe's MOLL FLANDERS, the tale of an often-married (and/or mistressed) woman who gets by on her wits, used to be my favourite classic. It's a ton of fun. THE WOMAN IN WHITE, Wilkie Collins's story of conspiracy and madness, has since replaced it. NORTHANGER ABBEY by Jane Austen is a close second; it's about a young woman who is obsessed with gothic novels and expects life to follow the same rules.

  16. Ugh Great Expectations - I did it twice and i HATE it now!