A few days ago I took myself off to Whitstable (a picturesque, characterful town on the Kent coast) and, predictably, ended up in a bookshop. It was one of those small but perfectly formed independents that somehow manage to cram an impressive literary catalogue into the space of a living room, and in the corner near the till my attention was caught by the best collection of Wordsworth Classics I’ve seen anywhere for a long time. I’m sure book lovers everywhere will agree there’s something about classics by any publisher – Wordsworth, Penguin, Oxford, whoever – all grouped together that’s pretty intoxicating to us book addicts. There was no way I was going to be able to leave without buying one, but even as I handed over my £2.50 (bargain!) for Elizabeth Gaskell’s “Wives and Daughters” I was already trying to ward off the nagging awareness that although I do still love to buy classics sometimes, in truth I’ve almost entirely stopped reading them.
I honestly feel quite guilty about this; after all, I was brought up on the great Victorian classic novelists, reading those way before I moved on to contemporary adult literature, which I only really got into in my early twenties, and I’m an English Lit grad too, which I still feel marks my reading card sometimes though it was many years ago. A year or so ago, when I tried to get back into classics with “Armadale” by Wilkie Collins – an author who wrote two of my all-time favourite novels – I was horrified to admit I found it so…. hard-going. The language and the pace of this kind of fiction is worlds away from so much modern literature to be sure, but I was still ashamed at how bogged down I felt while trying to read it. Have I got so out of the habit of reading classics, I thought, that I just can’t cope with them anymore? And have I got so used to the ease and familiarity of the modern writing style that I’ve lost my ability to absorb, concentrate on and enjoy anything that sounds remotely archaic? If that’s true, then what a massive failing for someone who claims to be a book lover!
I was talking about reading guilt with someone at work not long ago and we agreed that it can sometimes be a bit difficult to admit you don’t particularly like certain books or authors regarded as “classics” from any era. In the spirit of honesty I’m going to hold my hands up and say here and now that I can’t stand Dickens. I’ve started five (never let it be said I don’t give people a fair shot!) and only managed to finish one. From an objective point of view I can completely see why he’s a literary genius – but I don’t get on with him because he just doesn’t resonate with me. And that’s ok, my colleague and I decided, because why should anyone be obliged to enjoy certain things? What’s bothering me about my falling out of love with classic literature isn’t to do with that “shame” of only reading contemporary fiction, as I don’t believe one kind of fiction is more or less worthy than another, but rather what it says about me that a style of writing that once gave me so much enjoyment suddenly feels inaccessible.
I’ve come across quite a few bloggers who set themselves reading challenges, maybe to read a certain number of books a year or to read genres they’d usually avoid. As yet I’ve never felt I wanted to set myself a challenge of this kind, because a) I don’t like pressure! and b) I’m a reasonably changeable soul and would much prefer to read as the mood takes me; but now I’m thinking that a little, informal challenge might be what’s needed to get me back into classics again. Quite simply, instead of passing over my unread classics in favour of something shiny and new, I’m going to make sure I start one within the next week. I bought “Wives and Daughters” – so I’m going to read it!
Maybe this is all an unnecessary hang-up, but I’d really like to feel engaged with older literature like I used to, as it gave me so much pleasure before. I’ll let you know how progress goes! I’d also love to hear your thoughts if you’ve ever felt the same, or indeed if you have a completely different take on my predicament – if that’s even what it is. See you back on the blog very soon, hopefully with a classic book review!