How to Read Classic Novels?
Just like you read any other book!
Many times, a classic gets intimidating and impossible only because we attach the book with too much importance and get bogged down by its length, significance and language.
My mother is a literature student. Our house was littered with her textbooks. Growing up among them and seeing my mother continue to pick up and enjoy her textbooks (which were classics!) made me immune to the fear and intimidation that a classic can evoke. I grew up reading unabridged versions of Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, Moonstone, Gone with the Wind and many more wonderful books at a very young age.
I did not understand the history behind the books or the significance of the period in which the story is set or the clever literary devices that the author has employed.
Sometimes, I did not even understand the language and the characters. I skipped portions and continued reading. I was just ten years old. So, it didn’t matter. I just read the book for what it was – a storybook!
Approaching the classics with such casual abandon made it easy for me to come back to them later on in life.
Only after I became an author, I realized that there was more to these ‘storybooks’ and it became my passion to revisit them and analyse them deeply and carefully.
This is what led me to start a Reading Club for Classics on the Read Write Inspire Facebook Community. You can join us too if you are on Facebook and love reading classics. We will be reading ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison for August.
Start with your Favourite Genres
A classic is not a genre by itself. A classic is a book that has withstood the test of time and remained popular and relevant for generations to come.
In my opinion, no book falls into a single category. For example, Red Riding Hood (just to choose an example familiar to all!) is not just horror and thriller but it is also a coming of age story.
Similarly, Wuthering Heights is not just a Romance novel. It is also a Gothic fiction, a coming-of-age novel and a revenge tragedy. This is because every book presents different facets of itself to different people.
When we come to a book, we bring to it our own experiences, preferences and vision. These unique aspects influence our feelings while reading the book.
If you haven’t read classics after school years, it might be easier to start with books that are in a genre that you enjoy reading.
For instance, if you enjoy reading horror, you might choose
- Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson or
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley or
- Dracula by Bram Stoker or
- The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
If Romance is your favourite genre, you would enjoy
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
If you are a history buff and like reading about some important historical events and their significance in the lives of ordinary people, try
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
- Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
For instance, I’m a huge fan of mysteries and thrillers and own a good collection of the same. Here is my review of the Classic Mystery Thriller, The Lady Vanishes.
Set up a Reading Schedule for the Classic Novel
Reading a classic could involve some preparation as many of them run easily to more than 500 pages. Some of the long but engaging classics to read are:
- War and Peace
- Bleak House
- Vanity Fair
When you set out to tackle such long reads, it would be better to understand how much can you read in a day and how long it would take you to finish the book.
For August, we have chosen ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison. The book is about 164 pages long and I want to complete the book in about 20 days. So, I have set myself the schedule of reading about 8-10 pages every day.
How to read a classic novel can be different for each person but one thing that’s true for everyone is this: Magic happens when you read a classic every day until completion. This is true for all books, not just classics.
There are too many books that I’ve abandoned halfway through only because I did not read them for a couple of days and it lost steam.
When the book is an epic tome with dozens of characters, you might even forget who’s who if you leave the book for a week. Starting again can seem such a hassle that you might never read the book again.
So, read every day and stick to your reading schedule when you read classics.
A couple of years ago, I was a part of a reading club where we would analyse and dissect the books we choose.
It was not only a lot of fun but it also introduced me to certain genres and authors whom I wouldn’t have read otherwise.
Reading together can give you that subtle push that you need if you are not naturally inclined towards the classics.
Read up on the Author
Being a writer has opened my eyes to see and understand the person behind the art.
I’m excited for my next upcoming read on the FB Reading Group – ‘The Bluest Eye’ by Toni Morrison. One of the reasons for this excitement was that I had watched an interview with Toni Morrison recently. Though the author is no more, thanks to YouTube, we can still see and hear her.
The interviewer asks Toni why she doesn’t write about white people and Toni explodes. She says that she cannot believe the racism that underlines that question and calls out the interviewer demanding to know if she has ever asked an accomplished white writer why he doesn’t write about black people. The best part was she did it all so calmly and politely. You can watch it here.
I fell in love with her at that moment and am looking forward to reading her book now.
“Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him,” says Italo Calvino.
Understand the History of the Place and the Significance of the Period
A classic can tell us so much about the history of the place, the significance of the period and the fabric of society at that moment.
When I read ‘The Century Trilogy’ by Ken Follett, I wondered why this book wasn’t prescribed to all history students who are slogging their way through the First World War, Second World War and Cold War. It would have made history much more interesting and approachable.
Let us take Uncle Tom’s Cabin by American Author Harriet Beecher Stowe. This heart-wrenching anti-slavery novel is said to have triggered the initial disgust for slavery that later on led to the Civil War. It is said that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, he said, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.“
Tidbits, like this, can vastly help in understanding the classic that we are reading. It can also evoke our interest and expand our understanding of the significance of the book.
Skip your classic novel, if you have to, but don’t Quit
I’m a huge proponent of the idea that life is too limited to spend on books that do not appeal. If a book fails to catch my attention and keep it, within the first ten pages, I would never touch it again.
The only books for which I make an exception are textbooks and classics.
Classics belong to a time where they did not have to compete with television or social media. So, they did not have to jump out and grab your attention right from the first line.
Times have changed and modern literature has had to evolve with the times. So, it can be difficult to go back to reading the classics that can seem to be too wordy or digressing.
But, don’t quit!
When it comes to classics, if you quit once, you are never going to get through any.
Reading classics can be a challenge if you aren’t used to reading a lot but it can be extremely rewarding. If you don’t believe me, you can read this article where Italo Calvino gives you 14 reasons why we should read the classics.
I have been guilty of skipping portions that did not interest me when I read classics long ago. Though I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, they helped me in two ways:
- I did not abandon the book and at least completed it.
- When I came back to the classic again, which you would if you had a pleasant experience the first time, I could read it completely and appreciate it in full.
While these are tips on how to read classic novels, there is no one rule that applies to all books and all persons. For some, reading upon a schedule could be irritating. For some, reading about the history and time significance of the novel can be off-putting.
Read your classic in the way that pleases you.
What is much more important than how to read a classic novel is that you are reading one.