Is Classic Literature All It’s Hyped up to Be?

Perhaps I’m odd, but I love many classic works of literature. I trust the rating that a piece is a classic, read it, appreciate what earns its title, and try to acquire a good copy for our home library. I feel that almost all are written well and/or demonstrate some extraordinary aspect that sets them above other literature.

Then again, some classics are boring.

Some are wordy.

A few have something that ruined the book as a favorite for me -and I do not speak of glaring grammatical sentences.

One of the first classics the public education system forced me to read was Silas MarnerThat one is in the Boring category, its primary failing. Even to this day, I do not know a redeeming characteristic of it. If one wants a good bite of rambling sentences, there’s James Joyce. If one needs historical literature, there are many alternatives. A treasure hunt? What about Treasure Island?

Silas Marner could also win for wordiest, but I’m more inclined to bump the phone book-sized The Three Musketeers to that position. To be fair to this assessment, I have not yet successfully gotten past the first third of the novel. Not even whilst I was on bedrest with my second pregnancy and had nothing better to do than stare at the walls and hope my previa moved was I able to get through it. Many, many classics are horribly wordy, yet the words are valuable. They are worth it. Instead of Three Musketeers, try The Count of Monte Cristo.

Last but not least is the failing category I am most interested in discussing: some thing that really bothered me in a classic. Sometimes in these cases, people hyped up the book. Others liked it; it’s acclaimed; it’s a classic. Surely it must be good, right?

One of my top entries in this grouping is The Great Gatsby. My criticism? I could not relate to any of the characters. At all. They were so unreal in behavior, thought, and action that I could never get into the story.

A second is The Screwtape Letters. I love C.S. Lewis. I wanted to love everything he wrote. As I read this famous work of his, however, I felt disappointed. I realized I expected Screwtape to be more insidious, more clever, more devious. Perhaps my experiences have been with a smarter and more subtle fiend?

A third and final classic for my chopping block is Wuthering Heights. I’m not a romance fan, in case people didn’t know, but I do read stories with romance in them. I like Jane Austen, for example. Wuthering Heights seemed far-fetched, perhaps. Mostly, like with Gatsby, I had little interest in the characters.

In retrospect, much of the reason I’ve found distaste with some classical literature is that I had to read them. That’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, though, because I doubt I’d have chosen to read them on my own.

Also, disliking a classic can have its benefits. Before The Grapes of Wrath in my senior year of high school, I’d never fallen asleep whilst reading.

As always, I am curious what others think. Are you a defender of all classical works to the bitter end? Are you one to agree with me, and nit-pick a few for failings? Do you not care so long as you can watch Colin Firth dive into a pond?

As my mother says, “Inquiring minds want to know.”

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—————-

I most certainly did not get wordy this week. Here’s what I did:
Wednesday, May 22: Wrote “If You Could Be Any Mythical Creature, What Would You Be?

Thursday, May 23: Nothing.

Friday, May 24: Winner of the Weekly Terribly Poetry Contest. Congratulations, again, to Bruce Goodman!

Saturday, May 25: Announced the 27th Weekly Terrible Poetry Contest. The theme is epic book or film series. PLEASE ENTER!

Sunday, May 26: “The Gatehouse,” in response to Sue Vincent‘s prompt.

Monday, May 27: Answered Peregrine Arc‘s prompt with “The Cell of Snares.

Tuesday, May 28:  Also nothing.

Wednesday, May 29: Today.

I also posted some at my motherhood site. I wrote “Mom, What Can I Do?,” and “Happily Ever After Is Possible, but It Requires an Epic Journey.”

 

Photo Credit:
Image by klimkin from Pixabay

 

© 2019 Chelsea Owens

72 thoughts on “Is Classic Literature All It’s Hyped up to Be?

  1. I never read classics as part of academics, so for me they seem no different than a book that is published recently. Having said that, I prefer to read contemporary. The last classic I read was Wuthering Heights which I liked a lot, so much that I published a book review in my blog, the only book review. Maybe I am a romance fan 😀 but it felt too dark and therefore my interest. I have picked up Moby Dick(surprisingly not in your list) based on a suggestion by a friend and I am slowly and steadily going through the rambling..this book will make other ramblers feel like featherweights.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can usually see why books were considered classics…it doesn’t mean I enjoy them though. Many of the classics seem to be rather depressing…and anything I was forced to study and dissect at school became anathema…with the exception of Shakespeare, and then only because I saw it played.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. You pretty much nailed it and them. Forced reading can be ruinous. I hated Great Expectations at 16, loved it at 46. Apart from Grapes of Wrath (loved it) and the fact I’ve never been that interested in Silas Marner I agree with your books. Oh and CS Lewis… never really thought much of him either… heresy, Yeah? I did read all the Narnia trudge-a-thons to my daughter cos she loved them, but I’d prefer to have that time back for Trollope.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The first time I read, or attempted to read, Moby Dick was in high school English class. I found it boring and so hard to get through that I got the Cliff Notes when I was halfway through it. The second time I attempted to read it was toward the end of college, and I absolutely loved it. I must have changed significantly in those six or seven years, but I developed a great appreciation for Captain Ahab’s all consuming obsession to exact revenge on the whale and his descent into madness, perhaps I identified with his struggle.
    Point is, a lot of how we feel about classic literature has to do when we read it, and if we’re reading it for our own pleasure or are being forced.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nick Hornby (not a classic author) put it right when writing about seeing the band, Led Zeppelin (a pretty dull “classic” band 😮) It’s okay to be bored in the presence of genius.

    Moby Dick was too excruciatingly tedious for me. Did you mention Grapes of Wrath? I thought was good but his supposed magnum opus, East of Eden, bored me rigid. Madame Bovary I thought just plain silly and I can’t bring myself to read Don Quixote because of its size – no novel really needs to be longer than about 300 pages; I think some famous living author said that too, but I can’t remember their name.

    I veer towards the “modern classics” because I can relate to them better, but, yeah, always dine five star if its the same price as McDonald’s. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Sometimes I don’t understand a book’s choice as classic. I just started Gatsby for the first time, and it just feels like evil rich people getting drunk and doing bad things. I don’t see the point other than to point out the excesses of the rich.

    I also think forced reading as a whole makes people flounder. My younger brother hated reading, but a lot of that was just him being anti-authority. Letting kids read what they want when they’re young might be helpful, even if it’s just an illusion of choice.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I enjoy some of the classics that I have read – Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen’s books that I’ve read. I can’t think what else at the moment. Like most genres, I like some and I dislike some.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I have some classics that I totally love. But I will also admit that I haven’t read many in years. One of my book clubs usually reads classics, so I’ve dipped my toe in again. I recently reread “The Importance of Being Earnest “ and I loved it as much now as before. I still hated “Great Expectations”. I think the wordiness gets me too. Oddly, my daughter is doing her final English paper on Rebecca, so as it’s in the house I think I’m going to read it. Will give you my thoughts in the coming weeks. Good topic

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, LA! I also liked “The Importance of Being Earnest.” We read Rebecca for our book group last week; a bit creepy but I’m glad I got to read it.

      I remembered the cultural literacy aspect of classics as well, when you mentioned Rebecca. Films, other books, and people reference classics.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I have read classics that I hated. I’ve seen some that are the worst bits of writing imaginable. The ones you mentioned? Here is a quick rundown:

    Silas Marner – never read it, don’t want to read it….

    Three Musketeers – Read years and years ago. It was OK. A lot can be lost in translation and a lot of it is the political “humor” of the day. There were some great places, but some boring places. And the first third? All regional/political “humor” – the people from there are so stupid. How stupid are they? Well, let me tell you…

    The Great Gadsby – read as an adult (very recently) and liked it. Not liking the characters is part of it – it is a biting social satire that draws blood in almost every sentence. The uber-rich are still like that today and I have as much sympathy of them as i do of the rotten characters in this book.

    Screwtape Letters – read as a 12 year old. I knew it was religious but it was far too preachy for me and more political than theological. He (Screwtape) was supposed to be a mid-level bureaucrat. It was a satire of our bureaucracies as much as a satire of good and evil. So Hell is a bureaucracy gone wild. Makes sense… (Again, taken from memories from before you were born 😉 )

    I just read Wuthering Heights this year. I’m not sure if I liked it or didn’t like it. Indifferent. I was expecting it to be a lot darker. It wasn’t nearly dark enough for me. Isn’t Gothic supposed to be dark? Did I say something about “dark” yet? 😉

    Grapes of Wrath, again I read as an adult just a few years ago, and thought it was great, if a lot heavier than most Steinbeck. In ways I think it is The Great American Liberal Bible. Every thought and idea in it shows the same lines between Conservatives and Liberals in the US as there are today. If you change the name “Joad” to “Rodrigues” it would read 100% 2019, from huge corporations eating normal people so they can make profit to normal middle America’s indifference to the plight of the poor and the attitude that if you lost everything, it is your own fault and you must be an evil person.

    Sometimes i don’t understand why a book is a classic. Sometimes i can – usually because it brings out great truths that are always relevant. For instance, I love Homer because everything he says still resonates 2800 years later (if you read just the war story, you miss 99% of it, if you think he glorifies violence, you are misreading it). But then there are the “classics” that were just popular in their day and so are thought of as classics today. A lot of those are like 1890s version of 50 Shade of Grey, pure drivel, but it sold a lot, so it must be a classic!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve hit many good points on the head! I do need to revisit Grapes of Wrath and I appreciate your pointing out the other messages behind Screwtape Letters and Musketeers.

      One good point for required readings is if the teacher remembers to give those surrounding lessons. I remember mine doing so with Lord of the Flies and The Scarlet Letter, which helped my liking of them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You might have to take my analysis with a grain of salt since they are from memories of books I read long, long ago – they weren’t required reading, they were books my older sister was reading, so i read them as well…

        Liked by 1 person

  10. I haven’t read many classics to give an unbiased opinion, but, like you, I’ve been disappointed many times by books that are over-hyped. One modern classic that I’ve come to admire, though, is To Kill a Mockingbird. That book is amazing in every respect- the story, the characters, the writing style- everything.
    Also, I’ve launched a Raw Poetry Contest- maybe you’d like to participate? I’d be thrilled if you would- https://magicquill17.wordpress.com/2019/05/30/the-raw-poetry-contest/

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s not only classics that can be boring but prestigious book award winners. The Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel’s ‘Wolf Hall’ is an example. It was hyped and praised but I gave up halfway through. Some of the comments mentioned wordiness as a deterrent to reading and I couldn’t agree more. Descriptive passages of furniture or nature can hold you spell bound for a number of pages but then becomes dull id there is not a decent plot or purpose to the book. I found this with Wolf Hall great descriptive writing going nowhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t read Wolf Hall but agree with your point. Especially for me, a person too busy to read unless I don’t clean the house, the words must have a good reason to be there.
      I’ve loved many descriptive works and even some that could have been trimmed; their merit comes from the way they change my mind.

      Like

  12. Thank you for validating my feelings about “classic” literature. It’s not good writing simply because someone decided it was a “classic”. My tastes have changed over time. I no longer pursue the classics because I have to, but because I want to. I’ve learned to put the classics in the context in which they are written to understand them better. What I’ve found is poor writing stands the test of time as well as good writing.

    Some I like, some I do not. Some are too wordy, some take time to paint a picture. I loved “Les Miserable” and had to put down “Don Quixote”. “Moby Dick” was far longer than it needed to be, but I loved the theme when placed in historical context. I am too wordy at times, so what the hey…

    I read far more non-fiction (and classic non-fiction) these days, but I still have my favorites as well as trying the suggestions of others. If you have any recommendations please let me know! Thanks for your writing. I enjoy it!

    Like some of the folks who commented ahead of me, I prefer “modern classics”. I’m not sure what places them in the “classic” category, but they are classic to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m think I’m in the same boat as you, or at least a similar fleet. 🙂

      When I was younger I thought I’d never like non-fiction, but (as with the classics) it all depends on how they’re written. I mean, message aside, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion was entertaining. It was funny. Eat, Pray, Love had some excellent passages on self-reflection and a great descriptive chapter on Depression. What If? and the Freakanomics books are also funny.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Moby Dick (I thought of this before I read the other comments) ranks as one of the most boring books I have ever read. I have never managed to get through more than 50 pages (made numerous attempts) of any of Mark Twain’s famous novels, which goes to show how taste is subjective. Wuthering Heights would be my favourite all-time novel – I must’ve read it 20/30 times. Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy would be my favourite all-time novelists.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. It’s on my bucket list to read all the classics. I’m not sure if it’s possible (I really don’t know the number count) but it’ll be fun trying. 📚📚📚📚📚

    I tried reading The Picture of Dorian Grey and didn’t really get very far. I also tried reading Robinson Crusoe. They killed a lion in chapter one so I was pretty much done.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I’m late to the dinner table here, as you posted a couple days ago. But I can’t resist. I love classic literature. I grew up in the sticks and I don’t recall any of this stuff being covered at my hillbilly school aside from perhaps To Kill A Mockingbird and I distinctly remember some Bronte poems in Brit Lit class. But whole novels? No. Only over the last few years I’ve discovered them. Some I don’t like. Who did I try recently? What was that bastard’s name? Oh, let me go look at my Kindle. Oh, I deleted it. Okay, well I know he wrote “Crime and Punishment” which was okay, but then I read his “Notes From The Underground” and it was Appalling! Hated it. I’ve read other appalling things, but many I love like Virginia Woofe, Thomas Wolfe, Charles Dickens, some others. I actually also love The Great Gastby. People are saying it’s just drunk rich people – no it’s not, it’s about illusion and fantasy chasing. The people are un-relatable because they are Of Their Time. They are caricatures of the roaring 20’s. I promise you – if Kurt Cobain had been a character in a novel instead of a real person, people 100 years from now would go, “oh jeez, that’s SO unbelievable.” and meanwhile his whole everything was a caricature of the 90’s. I also love Wuthering Heights. I recently discovered George Eliot. Where have I been? I like her so much I’m considering doing a full length feature on my blog, much like I did with Thomas Wolfe. I legit bookmarked your post because you mentioned books I’ve never heard of and I fully intend to investigate them all. So thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the input! ‘Discovering’ classics on my own, when I’m older, has proven a more balanced and advanced understanding. I know that about Gatsby and even knew that about Gatsby, but couldn’t detach from the story to appreciate its speculations; I had much the same problem with The Grapes of Wrath initially because I was raised rather religiously and found its content shocking. (Again, couldn’t appreciate the book for the trees.)

      Thanks for the bookmark! I feel I should have started with ones I like now, instead of jumping right to criticism. 😀 If you can get through them; Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, and Robinson Crusoe have excellent writing and life observations. I remember loving Dorian Gray the first time through but not being able to stomach it on a second round. 😀 I LOVED Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, and Pride & Prejudice -probably because I related to them at the time of reading. Lord of the Flies is excellent; definitely distributing if taken right at face value. I’ve also loved Dystopian works like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and Anthem.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Ohhh I feel like we could chat all day on this topic!! Such a fascinating post to read- I loved hearing your thoughts. I, too, fell asleep while reading Grapes of Wrath- I couldn’t make it through. I also know what you mean about The Great Gatsby.. the characters felt almost two dimensional and static- I mean sure Gatsby himself was “larger than life”, but like you said, the inability to relate with any of the characters really does hinder its ability to make you enjoy the whole story! Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Chelsea!!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I HATED Wuthering Heights, and lots of others I have found dull and slow-moving. But others are wonderful. I want to know who decides what gets a “classics” membership card. To me, the mark of a great book is one that can influence the way you think or feel about an idea/person/event. The more it entertains you on the way, the more you like it. For example, I did not enjoy reading Farenheight 451, but I still think it is influential and full of value. I think a lot of the classics can do that. The unfortunate thing is that the further our world of today moves from the world of the past, the harder characters, writing styles, word choices, events, places, and culture are to relate to. The value is lost in the challenge of overcoming “boring and unrelatable”. For the record, I loved 3 Musketeers, and Count of Monte Cristo was just OK to me. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I actually liked The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald focuses more on lyricism and style and theme, and less on character development and plot. You should read Tender is the Night though. It’s more well-rounded. As far as the other classics are concerned, I can’t stand anything that isn’t Russian before the modernist period. The language is too wordy like you put it. Do try Dostoevsky though. The Brothers Karamazov is an unbelievable novel. Crime and Punishment can get a bit boring because of its philosophical depth.

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  19. Gatsby’s one of my favorites! (But yes…the characters are all fairly unrelatable; they were the people Fitzgerald socialized with, and he was criticizing them.)

    I just treat classics like a history book; something for me to analyze more than ‘enjoy’ like I would Harry Potter or something.

    Liked by 1 person

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