19 century fiction, 20th century fiction, Ali Smith, classic literature, Classics Club, David Nicholls, George Eliot, George Gissing, How to be Both, Italo Calvino, old books, On Reading Old Books, Paul Kingsnorth, penelope fitzgerald, Reading, the bookshop, The Classics Club, The Wake, Us, William Hazlitt
Meandering around the wonderful world of the bookish blogosphere, I stumbled across The Classics Club – a group of readers who have committed together to read more literature which can be described as classic. I love reading classic literature, fiction in particular. But somehow a combination of the demands of busy life and the attractions of other forms of entertainment, including that of contemporary fiction, means that all too often that classic that I’ve always meant to read, that I really want to read, never seems to reach the top of the teetering piles of books shamefully called ‘mount ToBeRead’. So of course I’m immediately committed to joining the club, already drooling at the prospect of being able to share reading experiences with like-minded booklovers. (There are lots of classics reading challenges in the bookish blogosphere if you go looking for them. The Classics Club wins out for me because it lets you choose your own reading path and allows a reasonable time-frame of five years).
I dive heart-first into compiling my list of the 50 classic books that I will read. Fifty is the lowest number of titles allowable: I don’t want to set myself up to fail or exclude the possibility of reading other things as well.) There’s Austen, of course, and Hemmingway, Grahame Greene. Anthony Burgess’s The Clockwork Orange and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Arnold Bennett, the prolific author and critic who, through his precise observation and satirical wit enchanted my teenage years with his Clayhanger trilogy, gets several slots on my list. It’s as if I’m putting together the most luxuriously indulgent box of chocolates, with the promise of pleasures to come but without the calorific hit. A handful of the chocolates I’ve tasted before but most are tantalisingly new to me.
But as I gorge myself on the possibilities, discarding Wilde in favour of Wharton, squeezing in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop between George Eliot and George Gissing, I can’t help questioning why I’m salivating so. Why, after all, read the classics?
William Hazlitt, that beguiling and oftentimes most offensive of 19th century critics, says in his essay On Reading Old Books “I hate to read new books. There are twenty or thirty volumes that I have read over and over again, and these are the only ones that I have any desire ever to read at all”. This isn’t me. I revel in the delights and rewards of contemporary fiction – and not just literary fiction but thrillers, crime novels, cookbooks and histories. I read about politics for my profession and the latest in literary criticism for currency in my studies. Reading time is finite, doubly so for slow readers like me, and every hour spent on Robinson Crusoe’s island or in trapped in Castle Rackrent is an hour not exploring How to be Both with Ali Smith, not joining Paul Kingsnorth’s Wake, or not being part of Us with David Nicholls.
Reading new books is a risky pursuit. There’s always the chance that a much anticipated or carefully selected book prompts indigestion or, worse, elicits no reaction at all or turns out to be a penny dreadful rather than the hoped for lyrical story-telling or plot-driven excitement. The classics are safer and offer a more predictable experience. There is a confidence of reward or, for those readers not attracted to the classics, a forewarning of. A classic may gift entertainment, intrigue, escape, hope, enlightenment or insight; or one or more of many other prizes. But whatever its form there is a surety arising from the consensual judgment of previous generations of a return on the reader’s investment.
Italo Calvino, in his posthumously published “Why the Classics” argues “there really is no use in reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect”. Instead, “we should only read them for love”. He argues that reading a classic in adulthood can be an extraordinary pleasure, different from the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth and that each re-reading is as much a different voyage of discovery. For Calvino, the classics those books with the palimpsest of earlier readings “and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.” The classics then are those books which are not constrained to speak only at the moment of production but transcend space and time to chime with other audiences.
Some resist reading the classics, perhaps deterred by perceptions of difficulty or irrelevance. Calvino holds that formal literary education can do more to obscure our appreciation of classic works. “Schools and universities,” he writes, “ought to help us to understand that no book that talks about a book says more than the book in question, but instead they do their level best to make us think the opposite.” Although this has rarely been my experience, the array of scholastic critical analysis equipment, from commentaries to critical apparatus, from bibliographies to symposia, can easily become Calvino’s “smoke screen to hide what the text has to say”. But if we follow Calvino’s adage of reading the classics for nothing more than love, then Deconstruction and New Historicism are unnecessary tools.
There’s no guarantee of reward of course, not even with the classics: the reading experience is dependent not only the novel but on the interaction between the work and the reader, with the reader adding the sum of their entire cultural experience as well as their mood of the moment to mix into the space between the words on the page and the reader’s eyes. This means that every reading is unique to the reader. But we are not all so unlike that we cannot have a reasonable prospect of gaining similar rewards, especially where there is some culturally comity between the reader and those who have read and judged before.
And so I read the classics for love. I’ve kept my reading list to 50 titles to be completed over five years, because I do not want to be reading the classics only (how to define a classic is a topic all of its own but for the purposes of The Classics Club its anything published more than 25 years ago). No doubt the list will be chopped and changed and it will inevitably grow as introductions to one author or novel lead to others. And I hope that chattering with others taking part will also broaden and define my classics reading path – that surely is a part of the purpose, part of the delight? So here I go, the first of fifty in front of me, pen in hand, notebook to one side and strong cup of Hot Java Lava for company. Into the adventure of a lifetime. Whose coming with me?
Here’s my selection of classics to read with the Classics Club.
* Credit for image of William Hazlitt: "William Hazlitt self-portrait (1802)" It is a self-portrait by William Hazlitt - Portraiture in the Oxford DNB, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.; Credit for image of Italo Calvino: "Italo-Calvino" by The original uploader was Varie11 at Italian Wikipedia - Transferred from it.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Italo-Calvino.jpg; transfer was stated to be made by User:Daehan.. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.