I hate, hate, HATED Gullivers Travels. Perhaps it was because as a young teen I was expecting a tale about little people adorably torturing a comparative giant, perhaps a little a la the Borrowers. Instead I got a tale filled with political satire. After about the second kingdom's worth of pages on political systems, I was disillusioned and grumpy. It's not like I hadn't read other classics succesfully in the past. I tackled the Lord of the Rings at a very young age and quite liked it (Though I must admit re-reading those books 10 years later made me realize that my 10 year old brain had interpreted it into a TOTALLY different tale.) But Gullivers Travels broke me. I didn't read another classic for fun for a very,very long time.

I still read classics for school and I really, really enjoyed them. Heck, I was a big fan of Walden when our teacher assigned it to us and that is arguably more non-fictiony-y than Gullivers Travels. So what was the difference? It was figuring out that difference that allowed me to start reading classics on my own again.

First of all, it was about expectations. When I was doing homework, I didn't have high expectations that the homework would always be scintillating and highly entertaining at all times, so when it was even slightly pleasant and sparked an interest above the typical homework-doldrums, I enjoyed myself immensely. This allowed me to experience genres and topics that I typically wouldn't have initially chosen for myself, but found as I was forced to immerse myself in them that I really, really liked them.

Second, there is the way most high-school teachers teach literature. They assign chapters. Your homework tonight is to read x page to y page. When reading for "fun," you feel like you should just be able to read a book indefinitely, and when you can't, you figure you just don't like the book. NO. Most classics are classics for a reason: they invoke deep thought. That can, strangely enough, be tiring on the brain. To get the most out of a classic, you really do need to read in bite size chunks so you can let its concepts percolate in the noggin. 

Third, there's the situation itself. I'm in homework mode, I've got my thinking cap on and I'm ready for some heavy stuff. When reading for fun, often-time it's right before bed and the last thing I need to help me relax myself off to beautiful dream-land is to agonize for an hour over the fate of Hester Prynne in the Scarlet Letter. 

Not reading classics in my free-time wasn't a big deal during my school-going years as I had plenty assigned to me. I thoroughly enjoyed myself all the way from All Quiet on the Western Front and the Chosen in high-school to Geoffrey Chaucer and Beowulf in college. But then, school was over and I no longer had anyone assigning me classics and giving me the structure in which to enjoy them. And I soon found that to be a much bigger hole in my life than I'd ever thought it would be.

Then, once upon a time, it happened, I was unemployed for a goodly stretch and soon realized the key to staying sane with all that free time was to put structure to my life. I needed to create a schedule and accomplish things so that I could feel that my life had purpose. What better time to accomplish something I'd been feeling guilty about avoiding all those years: reading the classics that we'd never gotten around to in school? So I became my own boss/teacher, setting goals and structure. 

First, I set my expectations as if this was an assignment: I wasn't reading Catcher in the Rye because books about whiny, disaffected teenagers are particularly my cup of tea - I was reading Catcher in the Rye because it's freakin' intertwined with our culture and I was tired of being left out on the cultural short-hand. If I enjoyed it for its own merits, well, cool beans - bonus! This approach allowed me to read Remains of the Day which for 3/4 of the book strikes you as a meticulous primer on how to be the perfect English butler but in the end you realize it's about SOOOO much more. To this day, I get excited just thinking about that ending.... ahhh... good times.

Two, I set limits. For most classics, I only read 10-20 minutes at a time. Maybe 30 minutes if I'm really entwined but that's the max. This keeps me from burning out on a classic. This is especially helpful for the longer classics - otherwise you can read indefinitely and still not feel like you've put a dent in the book,which then prompts you to procrastinate ever picking up the book again. It's surprising how fast you can get through an 800 page book in only 10-20 minutes a pop when you are able to consistently do that daily. This method allowed me to thoroughly enjoy every single one of Vanity Fair's 900 pages and, in fact, at the end, go "whaaaa.... it's done ALREADY????"

Three, I consider the time and place. Before bed, I'm going to enjoy myself with something fairly empty-headed. I'm going to leave the Othellos of the world for an earlier time in the evening or day when my brain is active and my dream-state isn't likely to conjure up phantom strangulations and motiveless, deeply-disturbed villains. Hence why Othello, one of Shakespeare's darkest plays, is one of my favorites - I DIDN'T TRY TO READ IT WHEN MY BRAIN REALLY JUST WANTED TO BE CURLED UP WITH SOMETHING WARM AND FUZZY.

Now don't let me pull one over on you, I'm no perfect classic-reading-saint. I still have my Mount Everests - those classics I intend to read before I die, but haven't quite gotten the courage yet to tackle. This covers pretty much any of the lengthy Russian novels that I hear have so many characters with almost identical names you have to diagram them out to keep up. Oh, and Moby Dick. Fifteen or so years later I still can't get over my (much more classically minded) friend Katie describing the chapters upon chapters in the middle of the book dedicated solely to the intricacies of fishing and whaling. 

But still, even with those remaining caveats, I have to say, I was happy and, in many ways, relieved when I realized I enjoyed reading classics in my free time again. My former inability to conquer the classics on my own had had me doubting my own intellectual worth. But it wasn't lack of intelligence or even interest, it turns out, that kept me from the classics for so long. It was simply a lack of structure.

Bill Miller
01/25/2013 6:29pm

The other thing I like about classics is it takes me into another world; a time often very different from my own. And that's part of the fun, trying to set aside my own preconceptions and appreciate things from their own world view. Of course, if the language is archaic or a little hard, that ads to the fun.


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