Feb 21, 2010

The Sunday Salon - Classics

The Sunday Salon.com On Classics

Hello Sunday Saloners. The other day I was looking at my list of books read so far in 2010, and I noticed that I've been reading a lot more classics than I normally do. The reason for this is a simply one: I've been reading a lot more e-books, and most of the e-books that are freely available are classics. I know many people don't like the idea of reading a whole book on the computer, and I used to be the same. But both my previous and my current job require me to stare at a computer screen for hours, and weirdly enough, this seems to have desensitised me.

Also, after my tendonitis last year, I've been a lot more careful about actually pausing for fifteen minutes every two hours or so. And I decided that instead of just staring into space for those fifteen minutes, I'd try to read on the screen, which is something that I can do while keeping my wrist still. It's amazing how those pauses here and there add up to so much more reading.

But anyway, back to reading classics: if you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll have noticed that many of my reading choices are what are widely considered unintelligent or unsophisticated books: I unapologetically read “rubbish”. And it’s not that I've avoided what tends to be universally considered “Proper Literature” because I have a grudge against it or anything of the sort. I have felt in the past that my other reading choices affected how seriously people took me if I tried to join conversations about Sophisticated Literature, but this is the internet - it's nothing if not democratic. Still, for many years I was more or less indifferent to classics. I didn’t grow up reading them, and, not being from an English-speaking country, I didn’t even read that many at school. It’s not really a matter of not knowing what I was missing, because while I believe that books are often unfairly forgotten, I've also always believed that they’re probably not remembered for no good reason at all. But I wasn’t in much of a rush to catch up.

I still don’t think that any one group or category of books is inherently superior to another, and I will continue to read my “rubbish” happily. There have been countless debates in the blogosphere about this, though, so I’ll refrain from going there again. What I want to say is: I now do want to catch up. And one of the reason is that over the past few years (and blogging is very much to blame here), it finally dawned on me that many of those books I’d been passingly familiar with all my life are actually a lot of fun to read.

There’s something else, and again, this isn’t a new idea, but rather an argument I often see used in favour of classics. But there’s a difference between intellectually understanding something and really understanding how it applies to my reading. What I’m talking about is cultural relevance. For better or worse (and inevitably at the exclusion of other things, but so it goes), classics have become a fundamental part of western culture. This means that references to them abound, in all sorts of contexts. And also that other books will often allude to, comment on, or respond to them. I love the idea of literature as a conversation, and being able to tell who’s saying what to whom just makes things so much more fun.

I'm getting carried away. What I meant to ask you today is to pick my next classics for me. I have quite a few e-books downloaded, and because several are calling my name, I can’t make up my mind. They are:

I’ll read them all eventually, but which one do you think I’d like best? Or is there anything else you think I ought to read right now? The only thing I ask is that it be available online.

One last thing: I think everyone knows of it by now, but if you’ve missed Rebecca’s amazing Classics Circuit, be sure to check it out. I’ve only participated in two of the tours so far, but I love reading what everyone else has to say about the classics they read. I have the Circuit to thank for adding books I hadn't considered reading before to my wishlist.

And last but not least, did you know that Meghan and Heidenkind are hosting a Classics Month in March? Be sure to visit them for more information.


  1. I voted for The Awakening because it's one of my favorite classics EVER and very fast and easy to read, but if you choose to read The Well of Loneliness, let me know! I haven't read that one, it's on my shelf, and i have plans to read it in the near future. Maybe we can buddy read it! :)

  2. I know what you mean! There are certainly lots of reasons to read classics and there are quite a few I want to read myself. I also love that feeling when you read a classic or even not a classic but a distinguished work and realize where something in culture has come from.

    Of course, I could argue that's a reason to read Twilight. ;)(i actually do that think that's a valid reason to read it but that might be a different conversation)

    I voted for The Well of Loneliness. I've never heard of it, but the title drew me in right away.

  3. I also voted for The Awakening because with your love of reading about women's issues I think you will adore it and also because it's a favourite of mine :). Like Amanda I also would love to read The Well of Loneliness.

    I liked what you said about a literary conversation between classic writers, modern ones and mutual readers. I love understanding the cultural relevance behind the text.

    At the moment I have a wish to devour some French classics and am *so* excited about the upcoming Classics Circuit Zola tour :D. I want to read Madame Bovary too as I never have and George Sand who fascinates me and more Colette because I dearly lover her writing... I could easily spend a year in French books.

    Oh, and the "rubbish" is your discovered treasure!

  4. What?! I had a long and thoughtful comment and Blogger ate it. I'll try to reconstruct.

    I voted for Understood Betsy because I remember liking it.

    As for classics -- I'm very lucky because I'm of a generation that didn't have the vast amounts of middle-reader and YA books that are around now. We went pretty much straight from picture books into books that featured children, but were they really children's books? Old Yeller, The Secret Garden, Little Women, Jane Eyre, The Yearling, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Wind and the Willows, Alice in Wonderland / Through the Looking Glass, and so on.

    We either read them or they were read to us from about age 6 on. Have I read all the classics? Ha! Yeah, right. But I'm confident that I've been well exposed.

    For you, of course, there were translation issues and not everything was available to you when you were young and your command of English probably wasn't there when you were 6 or 7.

    On the other hand, the quality of YA and middle reader books these days is amazing and so it's all a trade-off.

    I probably started off with some point here, but I've gone off into some rambling nonsense. Sorry.

  5. I voted for Mrs Dalloway for shameless personal reasons. I recently read it myself for the first time and I want to discuss it with someone who's opinion I value (that would be yours) who has just read it for the first time too. :D

  6. I voted for The Awakening. I read it a few months ago and loved it.

  7. Ah Herland. I read that years ago after falling in love with The Yellow Wallpaper. I expected brilliance from it. It disappointed.

    I'm curious about the Well of Loneliness primarily because of the title.

  8. Afraid I can't be of much help...I pretty much just read "rubbish". What can I say, I lack class. ;) The only one on your list that I've read is Ethan Frome. One of the few high school assigned readings that didn't leave me with a strong feeling, either positive or negative. I've actually been thinking lately about rereading it to see if evokes any stronger feelings these days.

  9. I stopped reading as many classics since I've been out of school, but I do sort of miss them. I recently tried to read Hard Times by Charles Dickens, but it was really frustrating because it had so many of the things people find frustrating about reading classics. One of the reasons I'm excited to, eventually, get an e-reader is to read more free classics on it :)

  10. I like the idea of reading classics as e-books also. I have found I read these as I'm waiting at my countless doctor's appointments each week. Like you said..they're free. As far as your "rubbish", I don't think so!!!!
    Enjoy your e-books. I voted for Chopin!!

  11. I voted for The Awakening because it's the one I most want to read and would love your opinion of. The only one I've read from the list above is Mrs Dalloway and while I loved all the Woolf books I've read for Woolf in Winter, am very partial to To the Lighthouse, above all.

    Like you, I have a huge gap in reading classics, having grown up in Asia. But the little I read as a child I loved so much that I continue to tend to classics more than contemporary titles.

    I'd love to recommend some titles (available in DailyLit.com) but not sure which ones you've already read. Not sure if you've seen my recent posts on Moby-Dick but I LOVED it so much! I won't recommend it to everyone, but to you yes, I think you might like it. I also really loved Robinson Crusoe, and think you might like that. And Great Expectations is one of my all-time fave classics; it's so heartbreaking but good. Also, I thought you might like Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, being a fantasy lover. When I was a kid, I thought it was the weirdest story I have ever read but owing to my love for fantasy, too, it felt somehow, strangely, cozy. Anyway, you might already have read these, but if not, please do!! :D

  12. "I still don’t think that any one group or category of books is inherently superior to another, and I will continue to read my “rubbish” happily."

    I'm right there with you. What I learned when I joined the blogosphere or actually I didn't learn but made me feel a little intimidated, was all the books I've haven't read. I was a late blooming reader. I'm the only real reader in my family so I wasn't surrounded by lovely classics, we didn't have reading time, there was no snagging my grandmother's favorite books.

    Anyhoo, love how you think. I may look into e-books thanks to your post.

  13. I voted for The Awakening but Ethan Frome is also one of my favorites. It's a starting place for Wharton. I'm also a fan of her short stories.

    I did notice you don't have any Dickens or Steinbeck on your review list. If you haven't read any yet, I recommend Oliver Twist by Dickens or Travels With Charley in Search of America by Steinbeck. Both are shorter works and great starting points if you haven't read these authors.

  14. Yes, I am with you - I unashamedly love my rubbish of all varieties, but I love classics too. For many reasons, but I love what you've said about literature being a conversation. I have plenty of gaps in my reading, studying literature at university not helping as much as you'd think, and I'd like to fix them.

    Anyway, I also voted for The Awakening. I really want to see what you think of it. I read it a long time ago, but I still remember parts of our discussion about it.

    And thanks for mentioning our Classics Month! I too love the Classics Circuit and I plan on participating as many times as I can. =)

  15. I voted for Ethan Frome because I've read books by Wharton and they were great. I haven't read this one though, so I am curious to find out what you think of it so I can see if it's for me!

  16. Because I love children's books...Understood Betsy!

    I like your poll, BTW. Nice way to decide.

  17. "while I believe that books are often unfairly forgotten, I've also always believed that they’re probably not remembered for no good reason at all" I love how you put this!

    I voted for Understood Betsy just to be contrary, but I'll bet the Awakening wins. It's a question of what makes a person's own ideal end-of-winter read: wry cosiness and sugaring off in New England, or Victorian passion in the subtropical sun? Mrs Dalloway seems like a book for later spring, to me.

  18. I voted for The Awakening because I am not a huge classics person but that is one of the few I really enjoyed. And I definitely think you would like it because of your interest in feminism and women's issues. :)

  19. Love your point about cultural relevance. You see this in play with children so often. People discount the importance of cultural relevance in helping close the achievement gap between more affluent students and lower income students, between black and hispanic students and their white peers. But testing, curriculum, teacher language all meet with a more receptive audience among those exposed to the core components of Western consciousness, canon.

    I, of course, voted for Mrs. Dalloway, but would also like to suggest a book called The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic. 19th c. American literary realism.

  20. As you probably know, I love the classics, but also happily read what others consider junk from time to time. It's all about balance for me.

    Have you read any Wilkie Collins yet? I'm thinking you have, but if not, I'd consider him a must-read for you. I'll also recommend The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. It's magical and whimsical but profound and moving. I think it would be right up your alley, but I'm not sure whether it's available online.

  21. Okay, I'm the only one to vote for Herland so far.... I think calling it a classic is a bit generous, but I do think it's a lot of fun. You could make a case for its importance, certainly as a marker in the develoment of 'feminist classics' but its also a bit rubbishy. Classic rubbish maybe. When you do read it, keep in mind that parts of it are meant to be funny. Honest. I'm rambling, but I love Herland. I think its wonderful.

  22. Your indifference to classics really made me laugh. I grew up in a English country, studied English Literature for both 'O' level and and 'A' and I still didn't read hardly any classics. I had avoidance techniques down to a tee and it is only now that I am enjoying books like these after reading such glowing reviews of them.

    If you had told me two years ago I would be engrossed in Pride and Prejudice, I would have laughed at you.

    I can't vote on any of those books as I haven't read any of them. I hope the other bloggers help you out there.

  23. I voted for Mrs Dalloway - not only because I loved it, but also because it's the only book I know of in your survey (...) After that, you can read Cunningham's retelling of the story in The Hours - true masterpiece :)

  24. I love the classics! Also, absolutely love public domain e-book classics. I've always been a reader of classics since I was little and my parents brought me children's abridged classics. Another thing which is currently encouraging my reading of classics is the ereader I got for Christmas. As much as I'd like to purchase books for it, there's so many classics in the public domain that I can download for free to it (which, of course, I do). Also, I think it's totally possible to read classics and not be a lit snob, like, I think you can love classics AND love "rubbish" and obviously, you prove this every day with your blog.

    Also, I voted for The Awakening because there's a lot to be said on gender in it. Oh oh and thanks for pointing out the classics circuit, I'll definitely be joining!

  25. I vote for Mrs. Dalloway, but it's mostly because of the Woolf emphasis this winter. It really is worth reading and it's quite a beautiful book.

  26. I have to offer my vote for The Awakening because of your love for reading about women and your interest in feminism. Have a lovely week.

  27. Why do people want to fight about which kind of reading is more elite??? For goodness sake...we're all reading something and that should be enough. I say carry on with the classics especially if you enjoy them!!

    I voted for Ethan Frome- loved it!

  28. I voted for Mrs Dalloway because I've read mixed reviews on it and though I'd read this in the near future, but most of all I'd like to hear what you'll think of it! ;)

  29. I voted for Ethan Frome because I love it but I actually want to recommend reading it close to The Awakening. I read them almost back to back and found a lot of similarities.

  30. You mean other countries don't force their children to read classic lit? Gargh! That's so unfair.

    I also read rubbish. I really do enjoy trashy books. :) I think the last time I read a classic was when I was a senior in high school.

  31. I voted for The Awakening, because it's the book I'm most interested in myself! I'd love to hear your thoughts on it! :D

  32. I didn't vote because I feel I don't know your tastes well enough yet, Nymeth, but I think that it's good to remember that many "classics" started out as "rubbish" literature in the popular imagination when they were first published. Either because of being written in a then stigmatized genre (fairy tales, short stories, the sensation novel, etc.) or because they were so revolutionary in some way, many works currently deemed "classic" only became so after a long amount of time had passed. Cervantes himself didn't think Don Quixote was his major work when he died, so even the most creative people can be so, so wrong about these judgements and labels readers bandy about sometimes. Interesting post!

  33. Amanda: I will!

    Amy: Believe it or not, I HAVE thought that about Twilight :P The Well and Loneliness was one of the first openly lesbian novels - it was published in 1928, so very controversial at the time! And I agree that the title is beautiful :)

    Claire: I have little doubt I'm going to love The Awakening! I'm also fairly sure it'll win, so I might as well start it :P I'm hesitating about the Zola/Dumas tour...I want to read them, but most online versions are early and not very good translations. I do own a recent edition of The Three Musketeers, but we'll see :P

    Beth: Argh, sorry about the comment :( But don't be sorry! Your second version still made perfect sense. I can see your point. Back when they weren't so many quality children's and YA modern books, it was more likely that classics would be read early on, but then again, it's definitely a good think that the quality has improved so much!

    Zee: Aw, I'm flattered that you trust my opinion :D

    Vasilly: The Awakening it'll be, it seems :P

    Christina: I saw a recent review of Herland that made it clear it's not as good, but I'm still very curious!

    Debi: We're hopeless, you and I ;)

    Kim: I'm determined to read some more Dickens this year, but I don't know where to start! So many people have trouble with him that I'm kind of intimidated.

    Wisteria: I do love my "rubbish". And - gasp - I even find it meaningful ;)

    Claire: Out of those, the only ones I've read were the Alice books, which I did love to bits and pieces :D The only Dickens I've read was A Christmas Carol, which I loved. I really ought to read more, but where to start? As for Moby Dick, I confess it intimidates me, but all the recent Moby Dick Mondays made me want to give it a try. Someday, someday :P

    Color Online: It CAN ve intimidating, that's for sure. But on the bright side, people are so welcoming! Nobody has told me, "What? You're only reading Anne of Green Gables now?!?!?!" :P

    Karen: I've only read Dicken's A Christmas Carol, and no Steinbeck at all, so thank you for the recommendations!

    Meghan: I know! Studying literature really doesn't help as much as you'd think. I guess there's only so much that university courses can cover. The Awakening it will be, it seems! I'm really looking forward to it.

  34. to be fair, I've only read Mrs. Dalloway and Herland. I think you'd enjoy Herland and it's short and easy to read but not great. Mrs. Dalloway is spectacular, I thought, but much more brain-intensive.

    I understand exactly what you are saying about wanting to catch up. I know I neglect the modern stuff, graphic novels, etc. etc. But honestly, I just REALLY want to read the other stuff NOW. I don't think it's a matter of rubbish for me -- I think it's just a matter of what I want to read.

  35. I hardly read enough classics too, and so I didn't vote on this, because I haven't read any of them, and have no idea what each one's about. But I'm interested in reading The Well of Loneliness, so maybe I'll read that soon.

    Good luck with reading the classics. You and me both.

  36. The Awakening is one of my favorite classics :)
    You read and review some of the most unique and interesting books!

  37. I chose Ethan Frome, but The Awakening was a close second.

    I think you make a good point about the role of classic literature in modern culture. Allusions pervade our television, films, and newly published books, and understanding the origins and context of those allusions can really add a greater understanding. Having shared culture experience (and hence shared references) through literature is something I try to teach my students in lit courses.

  38. I'm planning on reading The Well of Loneliness soon, after just reading recently "Better Angel", fromt he same general time period about male homosexuality, so I can compare the two. If you end up deciding on it, let me know, I'd love to read it with someone smarter than me :D

  39. E-books are such a boon, so far as classics go. I used to read a lot of them during my downtime at work. I found it was a good way to get through them because I didn't expect to be able to read them quickly. Classics often trip me up in print form because pre-twentieth-century syntax and I do not get along very well, so I can't read them anything like as quickly as I read modern books. Reading them electronically, with plenty of interruptions, eliminated this problem.

  40. Andreea: This will be my first Wharton, but I'll be sure to read more of her work if I like it :)

    Readerbuzz: I love children's lit too :) I'll get to them all eventually!

    Trapunto: Mrs Dalloway for late Spring, hm? I'll keep that in mind :P

    Heather: It's winning by a landslide - you all know me well, it seems :P

    Frances: That is such an excellent point when it comes to education. And thank you for your recommendation!

    Teresa: I've read (and loved!) The Moonstone and The Woman in White and have No Name and Armadale on the list. The Master and Margarita is another one I'd really like to get to! It's probably not available on Gutenberg, though. At least not a recent translation, and those tend to be better.

    C.B. James: Thanks to Rebecca Reid's recent review of Herland, I more or less know what to expect :P But I definitely still want to read it!

    Vivienne: lol, maybe not HAVING to read them improves our disposition/receptivity?

    Alessandra: I've read The Hours, and even though I'm sure it's much more enjoyable if you've read Mrs Dalloway, I LOVED it - it's one of my favourite books, in fact.

    April: I know - hooray for free books! Enjoy the Classics circuit :D

    likeglass: I'm determined to read it this year - To The Lighthouse too!

    Gavin: Thank you! You all know me well :P

    Staci: I agree, and I didn't mean to fight! Sorry if I came across that way.

    Melody: lol - a good reason :P

    Michelle: I'll keep that in mind!

    heidenkind: They do, but not English language classics. We do have our own ;)

    Steph: lol, I love how that so many people's reasons :P

    Richard: I actually completely agree - the "rubbish" was more tongue in cheek than apologetic :P Of course, that doesn't always come across well on blog posts, I know. But yes - I think that if we could see which contemporary books will be remembered in a century most people would be surprised.

    Rebecca: I know, and honestly, I don't think there's anything wrong with that at all! We all make choices. I have nothing against some reading exclusively Nobel Prize winners, for example, as long as they don't tut-tut others for *their* choices :P

    Michelle: Thank you! Good luck to us both, yes :P

    Naida: The Awakening it is! I shall report back soon :P

    Trisha: I think I'll read Ethan Frome very soon after The Awakening as per Michelle's recommendation above :) And I know I've told you this a bunch of times, but the courses you teach sound so interesting! I love your approach.

    Jason: Someone smarter than you? That won't be me :P But I'd love to read it with you and Amanda :)

    Memory: Exactly! Somehow it's so much easier to focus on those difficult classics when I'm reading them on the screen in small doses.

  41. I am just starting to dip my toes into the classics as well, and have read a handful of really neat things. I just never really paid attention to them before, but I am really trying to get more of them read now. One that I am in the middle of right now is Dead Souls by Gogol, which Aarti also just read. If you haven't tried it, I do recommend it. It's very silly and well versed and I am really liking it alot. One that I just finished was East of Eden by Steinbeck, which is not as old as some others, but is also a really powerful and interesting read. Whichever you decide on, I wish you much success!

  42. I voted for Mrs. Dalloway because I can't wait to hear what you think of it!

  43. I voted for The Awakening too. Every time I re-read it, it just seems to fit whatever I'm experiencing at the time.

    I remember reading Herland in a women's lit course. I don't remember the details, but I remember thinking that it would be perfect as a sci-fi B movie of the MST3K variety.

  44. I need to be braver with classics. I know they can be enriching and wonderful reads but still somewhat daunting to me. I am loving my Kindle and is enjoying reading from it. :D


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