If you are a sports fan or know a sports fan, you may have heard of the “Sports Illustrated” cover jinx. This is simply an urban legend that if a team appears on the cover of the magazine they will become jinxed. Fans (and I would assume players/coaches) have been known to become upset when their favorite, and currently winning, team gets selected for this “honor.”
I wonder if writers don’t feel something similar when their books are dubbed or compared to “classics.” Because let’s face it, readers tend to look at them with a certain amount of dread and distain especially when we were assigned to read them in school. They really can be dull and laborious, and the assignments due upon completion could be such a drag.
In my academic career, I was always less than pleased when I would have to digest, process, and regurgitate the “hidden” meaning of underlying themes and messages that the author may or may not have intended. Granted, I enjoyed writing, but not necessarily about literature. Thus, for many years, the unassigned volumes of so-called “greats” went unread. Dickens looked daunting. The Bronte Sisters dreary. Dostoevsky confusing. And while everyone had heard of books like Fahrenheit 451, they weren’t in the free reading pile.
However, a couple of years ago, I decided that my classical reading was supremely undernourished. If I was going to tout that I was a reader and think of myself as well read, it was high time I cover a few of the basics I hadn’t been assigned. So I made a list. I decided I wanted to read at least one book by Dickens, Dostoevsky, Austin, Tolstoy, etc. I wanted to read A Picture of Dorian Gray, Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and yes, Fahrenheit 451.
In my mind these reads would be epic tasks that would require great strides of perseverance and stamina. But I would conquer them and then I would brush my hands off and be done with that silliness. This was to be my reading training so to speak; push my limits, and exercise my mind.
First up: A Tale of Two Cities by the one and only Mr. Charles Dickens. I chose it basically because it was the smallest Dickens novel I could find sitting on the shelf at B&N and thus appeared the least painful. I began and, of course, encountered the famous beginning: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” I grimaced and marched forth. My attitude towards this project is inspiring, isn’t it?
But I was stunned…
I not only read the first few pages at a reasonable rate, but I understood them. (I don’t know why but for some reason I thought that not only would these reads take me weeks to complete, but I wouldn’t have a clue what the hell they were talking about.) I found the meter of the writing beautiful and strangely inviting. I read descriptions that were amazing in their uniqueness and clarity. I understood why Dickens was indeed a master. I finally realized what all the fuss was about.
I finished A Tale of Two Cities in a matter of days, and I found myself wanting to read more Dickens not just the one I had personally assigned myself. I acknowledged that maybe the classics weren’t all that bad after all.
Over the next year or so, I read all the classics I had put on my original list and shockingly out of all of them there was only one that I didn’t really enjoy. It was Anna Karenina by Tolstoy that lived up to all my classical expectations. But I found all the rest not only tolerable but enjoyable. I admit that Dostoevsky was tough but worth the effort.
I read two more Dickens novels and added more classics to my reading list, but this time I added them not out of self-imposed obligation, but because I genuinely wanted to read them.
They are, at times, more difficult to read. Though while I do have to adjust to the writing style, they have great stories to tell. And when I’m not worried about writing a paper after reading them, the experience is not as troubling or as grueling. Within the next year, I hope to tackle Sense and Sensibility, The Brother Karamazov, and The Prince.
I understand why classics are assigned in class, but I do feel the process casts a shadow on these stories and causes people to shy away. However, they aren’t simply stories with which to torture high school and college students. They are incredible tales of love, triumph, and intrigue. Maybe we, as a free reading population, should cut them some slack.