Have you read all of the novels commonly held as being important, classic works of literature? Have you ticked off the list Great Expectations and Madame Bovary and Pride and Prejudice and Les Misèrables and The Great Gatsby and Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Hobbit and The Grapes of Wrath and The Odyssey and Ulysses and The Catcher in the Rye and Crime and Punishment?
I very much expect the answer is a resounding ‘No’. Unless you are an English professor or particularly interested in literary fiction, you have likely read some classics but there are sizeable gaps in your reading.
How does confessing to the gaps make you feel? Are you quite happy to say you have read no more than three, five, ten, twenty classic novels – or do you feel a little uncomfortable being questioned on the subject? If an English professor grilled you on your reading list, would you feel somehow that you should have read more classic works? Or, indeed, would you feel annoyed by the professor suggesting (in a superior, snobbish tone) that you really ought to have made it through Moby Dick and War and Peace?
Writers Sarah Galo and Elon Green set out to uncover the reasons behind works remaining unread in a Hazlitt article. They were inspired to delve into the reading histories of a host of writers after influential American journalist, author and Atlantic editor Ta-Nehisi Coates revealed he had not read To Kill a Mocking Bird. This shocked his interviewer at Slate magazine, given that Coates’ book Between the World and Me is a passionate look at the exploitation and terrorisation of black Americans in American history. But Coates responded: ‘Why is that?… I am always surprised people are surprised that people haven’t read things.’ He reads what interests him to read: nothing else.
That is a strong and courageous stance for a figure in the public eye. But I wonder: why is the courage required? Why is it difficult for an intelligent, cultured reader to admit to gaps in their reading? It seems to me that not enough thought is given to the reasons for not reading classics. In the Hazlitt article, various reasons for literary gaps come forth:
Style: The authors of the article admit to avoiding Jane Austen for her ‘dryness of language’. Some of the classic works are hard reading compared to today’s style of writing: long books, long paragraphs, long sentences, complex syntax, complex vocabulary.
Aversion to aspects of the content: Galo and Green cite ‘fundamentalist Christianity’ as a reason for avoiding Harry Potter (it is of little surprise that a response to the article argues with this). Similarly, there are those readers who will always avoid Lolita for its depiction of a man’s romantic love for a twelve-year-old girl.
Education: Schooling plays a crucial role in introducing students to classic literature. Which works are taught – and how well they are taught – hugely affects engagement. I was lucky enough to be taught French literature by nuns who were very passionate about the books, which no doubt put me on the course to my French literature degree.
Discomfort/laziness: Green admits that ‘with each passing year [he is] simply less inclined to step out of his comfort zone’. The older we get, the more we know what we like, and we tend to repeat rather than push ourselves into new experiences. How much easier it is to buy a book from a tried-and-tested genre than to take a chance on something brand-new.
Mood: Author Renata Adler spoke of struggling to get through One Hundred Years of Solitude, so much so that she kept giving up on it – until one day she was ‘just in the mood’. I have always believed that the right books ‘find’ you at the right time; and then they have real power to move and challenge you.
Reluctance to be a sheep: Consider for a moment the Harry Potter phenomenon. When all the media are shouting about a new book series, does that make you want to rush out and grab a copy? Perhaps. Or it may make you feel the opposite; you may be averse to hype and prefer quieter reads.
Put off by others’ criticism: If your partner or best friend has read a book and condemned it, how likely are you to put time into reading it? What if they’ve given away the ending? Author Lesléa Newman said of The Well of Loneliness: ‘I know it’s a classic, but I hear it doesn’t end well and I just can’t bring myself to read it.’
Just not ‘getting it’: This is how Renata Adler described her inability to read Don Quixote. Nobody can feel an affinity with each and every book.
Sensitivity: Have you ever felt haunted or scarred by a book? The classics are so-termed because they are big, important, powerful works incorporating difficult subject matter. ‘Heavy reads’ is another way to describe them. But reading is a pleasurable pursuit and so, understandably, a resistance develops to reading something that is difficult, challenging – even, perhaps, depressing.
Feeling overwhelmed: The list of classics is very long (and very much in dispute). Where does one start?
There are plenty of compelling, reasonable explanations for literary gaps. And yet, those who think and dream and wish to be moved by writing and challenged by it will still seek to fill the gaps. The most sensible of them do so one carefully chosen book at a time.
I have challenged myself to read one new classic work each year. I read without pressure and with a great deal of consideration. I have found that it is a refreshing change to slow right down; it makes for very relaxing and rewarding reading. I am of a similar mind to CS Lewis, who said: ‘You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.’
Will you read a classic book this year? Which one will you pick? I would love to hear about it.