How to Read the Classics

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How to Read the Classics

Many of us have a bucket list of books we want to read (or that we feel we should read). Some of these are classics. The only trouble is, the classics don’t always come easily. They’re hard to read and understand. Archaic language, convoluted plots, and unfamiliar situations/time periods sometimes combine to make a classic more of a chore than a joy. Don’t despair, however. I’ve got a short course in how to read the classics for you.

I’m not going to argue about what counts as a classic. Everyone has their own definition of that concept. Suffice it to say it’s something that’s been around a while and has been judged “worthy” in some way. Also, I’m not going to tell you why you should read the classics. Everyone has different motivations. Some want to educate themselves, some want to better appreciate language, some want to learn from history, and others just want to do it for fun.

Whatever your motivation and whatever you choose to read, here are some ideas that can make it a bit easier.

Do it as a group.

Reading a classic as part of a book club or other social group gives you a chance to talk about it with others. You can work your way through it week by week, with everyone contributing to the understanding. Plus, a group keeps you accountable. Serve snacks! Everything goes better with food.

Try the audiobook.

No one says you have to read a book word for word. The audiobook may be easier for you to take in. Use it. If you want, you can follow along with the text as the narrator reads to you.

Pick the right translation.

Classics often come in many translations/formats. There may be a free one at a site like Project Gutenberg, but it may not have any footnotes or helpful aids. Some of the translations used in schools have plenty of notes and reference material to help you out. And there may be a bunch of translations in between. Pick the one that best suits your reading style.

Start small.

You don’t have to begin your classics journey with Moby Dick or War and Peace. Pick something smaller, like an Austen novel or Animal Farm. Easing yourself into the language and mindset of older works may work better than diving into the deep end.

Take notes.

Yeah, so you’re not in school anymore, but taking notes can still be helpful. Make notes of unfamiliar words, problematic plot lines, or anything else you don’t understand. Take your time and look them up later. Seek clarification before your next reading session. If you keep going long after you’re lost, the whole thing will simply end in frustration. If you clarify things as you go along, you can keep progressing with less frustration.

Start with books that match your other literary interests.

If you like dystopian fiction, for example, start with books like Farenheit 451 or 1984. Romance fan? Start with Jane Austen. Love historical fiction? The big boys Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky might be best for you. Mythology buff? The Iliad and The Odyssey are waiting for you. YA? Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Huckleberry Finn, Little Women, or To Kill a Mockingbird might be good places to start. The classics can be more fun if they align with the things you already enjoy.

Make sure you have the time.

You probably won’t be able to blow through a classic in one day. These aren’t bingeable books. Neither are they books that you can read a snippet of here and there and expect to be able to follow the plot. Before you commit to a classic, make certain you have the time to devote to it. You’ll need some uninterrupted blocks of time, and it may take a few weeks to get through the book.

Be patient.

In many cases, the language won’t come to you right away. You have to stick with it in order to get comfortable with the cadence and archaic language. Don’t give up after just a couple of pages. Slow down, hang with it, and eventually it will start to make sense.

Also remember this: Back in the day, authors were less concerned with “the hook” and the need to open a book with something flashy to gain attention. Many classics take a while to get going. There will be lots of exposition to get through and maybe not much dialogue. That’s just the way things were done, but it flies in the face of today’s works which get going right off the bat and skip exposition in favor of explosions and crises.

Read it to enjoy it.

In school, you read classics in order to dissect them. (And pass a test.) That made it extra hard because you felt like you had to grasp every nuance or fail. As an adult, however, you can read simply for enjoyment. Forget about having to understand all the deep meanings, or remember every character’s motivation. Just read it as you would any other book and enjoy the story.

Watch the movie.

I usually hate to recommend watching film adaptations of books because they tend to take a lot of liberties with the story. But… There is something to be said for being familiar with the general story before trying to tackle the book. If you have an idea of where things are heading, it can be easier to follow the book. Just don’t expect the book to follow the movie exactly. Be open to appreciating the differences.

And if all this seems like more work than you’re willing to put in… Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Read what you want to read. There’s no shame in a DNF. But if you’ve had certain classics on your bucket list for forever, these tips can help you get through them and even enjoy them.

(Photo courtesy of Pexels)

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