Many of us who consider ourselves frequent readers make some attempt to read classic novels. They are the foundation of modern literature, their stories and characters are referenced by modern writers, and oftentimes they are really amazing books. So some readers set goals to read a certain number of classics or join reading groups like The Classics Club.
We may approach with excitement or apprehension as we open to the first page of that revered work, that cornerstone of literature. Then we read.
So what happens then?
In my experience, one of three things happens. The first is the wonderful realization that you have found an amazing new author. You scramble to the internet and immediately begin compiling a list of the rest of the author's books. You rejoice that someone saw fit to keep this book available for decades or even centuries.
Other times, we finish a book and appreciate certain qualities about it. We admire the social commentary or some beautiful phrasing. Perhaps we see how it was the impetus for a movement or inspired books that came after it. We can join the conversation now, happy to know what everyone is talking about when they bring up that obsessive captain and his white whale.
But sometimes, we close the cover of a book and feel underwhelmed. It's entirely possible that we can engage from a distance and perhaps even see some merits. But a book and/or author that has been lauded for a long time just leaves you feeling meh.
I recently finished Hemingway's first major novel, The Sun Also Rises. I read his short story "Hills Like White Elephants" in college, but this was my first foray into a novel. And I found myself unimpressed. I understood the themes - Hemingway is writing about men after the first World War who feel stripped of their masculinity, men who don't know what to do with themselves now that the fight is over. But the story, the characters, even the writing left me wondering what all the fuss was about. I feel like I have checked some box off of a literary to-do list, but I'm not overcome with a desire to read Hemingway again anytime soon.
The problem, of course, is that we start wondering what is wrong with us. If a book has been revered for such a long time, surely it is deserving of all that praise. But I don't think that is true. Some really well-written, important books missed the opportunity to be dubbed "classics." Other books have been pushed into the hands of students and readers for decades, despite their failure to resonate with modern readers.
So here's the bottom line, friends. Reading classics, just like reading any other kind of book, will give you a mixed bag of experiences. Hopefully you will find some books that you adore. Others may strike you as duds. That does not mean anything about you as a reader. It does not mean that you aren't smart enough or that you don't get it. It means that the designation of a classic, like so many other things in life and art, is subjective.
What classic novels fell short for you?