The horror of every English class, those things your parents tell you to read because they learned so much from them as a child, the copies that are so worn you can’t even read the title: yes, friends, classic literature. They seem so daunting and horrible, but—take a moment to consider this—they might not be that bad.
From my experience in high school, the reasons I hear most often for disliking classics are that the language is too hard, the books are boring, the characters are unlikeable, and the reason that makes me want to pull my hair out: books written ages ago have no relevance. While there will always be a few classics that no matter what you cannot deal with (Gulliver’s Travels and I are mortal enemies), these books are classics for a reason and can actually be quite enjoyable to read. The first step to enjoying classic literature is to keep an open mind, then look at the reasons so many people despise it.
“Difficult” To Read
Yes, Greek plays and Shakespeare do not use the language we are used to. However, I dare say that this does not make them difficult, just different. These plays were written hundreds of years ago and people did not speak the way we do now, so it makes sense that the language would not be how we speak now. In addition, a lot of these works are poetic, which can add to the difficulty.
To make it easier to read, there are a few things you can do. First, do not be afraid of annotated versions. There will be jokes and references that you cannot get without someone telling you because this is the twenty-first century and things have changed. When you read an annotated version it is easier to understand what is going on as well as the language. For example, Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious and raunchy, but most people would not be able to entirely get those elements of it without help.
And, while it may make you look slightly crazy if you do it in a crowded place, reading out loud can make it more enjoyable. When you can actually hear the words, the rhythm is much clearer and it’s more enjoyable to read.
I will admit that some of the classics aren’t about the most exciting things, but I guarantee that the plot is not as boring as you probably think it is. And if not, it might not matter because some classics are more about the themes, characters, and symbolism than what actually happens throughout the book.
One of the best ways to make a “boring” plot more interesting is to know the context of the story. Before starting a book, look into the time period, especially the culture and societal rules that existed. While something may not seem that radical in today’s society, it may have been unheard of in the time that the book was published. If you think of how people would have received the book in its time, you can see why it was exciting then.
There are few groups louder about this complaint than students who were just required to read The Catcher in the Rye. And I will agree with one point of their complaint: Holden Caulfield is not a likeable person. But that’s the point. The thing about classic literature is that the books are rarely simply a story. There is a deeper meaning or goal that, unfortunately, is not grasped by a lot of people today. And, yes, sometimes the meaning or goal requires somewhat unlikeable characters and the only thing to do about it is deal with that fact and look past it.
The big question of classic literature: why do books written hundreds of years ago matter in a modern society? The answer is two words: universal theme. What keeps these books important throughout the years is that they talk about themes that existed then and still exist now. Examples include love, good versus evil, growing up, oppression—anything that a large group of people, if not everyone, can relate to. Even though the setting may not be today, most of the books we consider classics still make incredible points about all these topics that need to be heard.
So, next time your English teacher assigns you a book two hundred years older than you, give it a chance. If you keep an open mind, you may actually enjoy the experience and may—gasp—start reading classics for fun. Trust me, it is possible.