How to start reading classics

Open the book… although it helps to come prepared and open the right one. (Or, at the very least, a pleasing one.)

Reading a piece of classic literature isn’t quite like picking up the current being-made-into-a-movie thriller off the newsstand. The prose can be downright archaic or worse yet, fancy. The times and cultures in which the book takes place are as accessible as Uranus. Plots often drag on and on, making a particularly lofty piece of literature look shockingly similar to written diarrhea. (I’m looking at you Tolstoy and Dickens, you wordy windbags!) And sometimes, they just don’t make that much sense!

It helps to take an incremental approach to classics. If you jump into the deep end with the likes of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, you just might drown. Then you would swear off all classics, completely undermining your goal of being a reasonably well-read person.

If I may be so bold, allow me to put forth a plan. A plan where you don’t simply close your eyes and pick a random book from the Modern Library’s Top 100 Novels list.

Pick a Book That You Might (Gasp!) Actually Like

Lists of “Top 100 Novels,” “Must-Read Classics” abound. None of these lists tell you which book you might actually like. They’re mostly just an aggregation of books that are deemed as Important with a capitalized i for various reasons … most of which have nothing to do with your taste.

Luckily, “classics” is a wonderfully diverse category. You have everything from a dark satire from a pedophile’s perspective (Lolita) to a feel-good(ish) family tale (Little Women). Wherever your taste lies, you’re sure to find a classic that tickles your fancy.

Don’t just go for the pretentious pick. There’s time for that later. Go for the book you want to read.

Some self-reflection comes in handy here. Think back on the stories that you’ve enjoyed in the past, either filmed or written. Do you like action and adventure? Try Alexandre Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo. Enjoy snarky wit with a side of romance? Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is your best bet. Or maybe you like a good dystopia? Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell should be your first stop. A fan of Adam Sandler? Give John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces a try.

If you remain unsure of which classic will float your boat, Google is your best friend. Search for things like “classic tragedy literature” or “tragicomic classics” or whatnot. Review the results and see which ones piques your interest. Ta da! You have a lovely book just ready to be read.

A word to the wiser: if you’re going to read a translated work, don’t just go for the free Kindle copy. Spring for a good translation, especially of the Russian classics. Reading a poorly translated work is worse than not reading it at all.

Do a Little Reconnaissance

Now that you’ve picked your poison, it’s time to find out more about it.

You want to know a little more about this book before diving in. More than that teaser on the book jacket that only conveys a vague idea of its plot (if you’re lucky). Does this book have more concise or long-winded prose? (Hint: Dickens and Tolstoy are always long-winded. Always.) In what time period does this book take place? Does it include a lot of details of manners and courtly rituals? (This is a requirement for understanding Austen and many 19th century British classics, alas.)

Now that you understand the book a little better, you’re (slightly) more prepared for your endeavor. You will know that Moby-Dick talks a lot about whales. I mean … a lot. You also know that Tess of the D’Urbervilles is ever so depressing.

Fortify Yourself

Show time. It’s time to open the damn thing and read. You know, the act of looking at one word after another. Harder than it sounds.

Reading is like any other long-term activity. You put aside some time for it every day (or every other day) and read. The environment doesn’t matter as much as your will. Read at home in your wingback chair with sherry in hand or wedged between two overweight men on your commute, it doesn’t matter. What matters is you keep reading one word after another.

A note about expectations. Don’t expect a classic to flow like a modern novel or to understand everything. Those dusty old things were written in a day and age where lyricism and description were king (or bloat, depending how you look at it). Those who deigned to read had a lot more time back then without Facebook or TV competing for their attention.

Don’t expect to understand everything, either. Honoré de Balzac and Virginia Woolf didn’t write for someone who was born after their death. They wrote for their contemporaries, who would’ve understood their works far better. Writing conventions, language, customs, and culture were simply different back then. Try your best, that’s all.

If you expect a classic to be like a modern novel, you’re going to give up before page 30.

The brave souls out there can even turn this into a game. Take a shot of beer after every chapter you finish. Be warned: if you try this with Anna Karenina, you’ll end up in the hospital with alcohol poisoning.

Figure Out What Happened

Now you’re done! (And probably drunk.) Congratulations!

Alas, it’s not over yet. Now you need to figure out what happened.

It is easy to blaze through a classic, picking up on the general contours of the story without … well, getting it. You’re not even sure why this book is famous. At least you can tell people you read Middlemarch, right?

This happens to the best of us. The nice thing about today’s world is that we can look these things up. Read the plot summaries to make sure you didn’t miss something vital. Glance at essays—not the overly academic ones since those are a total drag—to see if there are some interesting insights that you might’ve missed. Hell, ask questions on forums to see what others think about this book.

If you’re thinking that this sounds like too much work, I ask you this: what is the point of reading a classic if you don’t understand it? You might as well read the dishwasher manual since that might be more useful.

Who knows? You might actually discover that The Picture of Dorian Gray is a pretty cool story.

Branch Out

If the last book hasn’t put you off classics forever, try a new one! Try something a little different. If you liked Pride and Prejudice, try Jane Eyre. If you liked Lolita, try Kurt Vonnegut. Classic literature is a wondrously diverse place full of treasures.

Be brave. Try new things.

P.S. Don’t feel obligated to love a classic just because it’s famous and stuff. I just couldn’t get behind A Flower for Algernon. (Too simplistic and too much 60s Freudian psycho-babble.) There. I said it.