Some time ago, I stumbled across people discussing some reference to Pride and Prejudice. To my surprise, one of the points raised was that one cannot consider oneself a book-lover if one has not read Pride and Prejudice. That gave me a pause. I definitely consider myself a book worm, but at the same time, I haven’t read anything by Jane Austen. And come to think of it, I haven’t read a bunch of other books considered classics either.
Why? Part of the reason is having grown up in a non-anglophone country. When I went to school, Poland had just won its freedom back from the oppressive communistic regime, and the Western literature was pouring into the bookstores, but most of it was cheap pulp, and not the classics. Of course, I’ve read some of Shakespeare, but he wasn’t more than a stepping stone in the history of the literature, just like Sophocles or Hemingway were. A brief mention or an except was all we got, and reading a full work was a rarity.
Instead, I’ve read a bunch of great Polish writers, most of them unknown outside of Poland, and some other classics that not necessarily make their way to British or American schools such as Kafka’s The Trial, Goethe’s Faust, or Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment. If they do – let me know!
Later, when I was studying Elementary Education with English – a field of study aiming to teach English as the foreign language the youngest pupils, and incorporating it into other subjects – we had a class on the literature from the English-speaking countries. We breezed through some works of Shakespeare, more Hemingway, Faulkner, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Bronte, and probably few more than I can’t recall. For a 1-hour class per week, it was quite an impressive pace, but it still meant we’d only scratched the surface of English literature. And Jane Austen wasn’t on the list.
Entering my adult life meant I had much less time to read, and I became more picky about what I read. I simply didn’t have time to devour anything anymore, and I focused on the genres I loved: science-fiction and fantasy.
But did I do better with those genres’ classics than I did with the general ones? A little bit..
Along with the wave of pulp literature I mentioned above, I got introduced to Robert E. Howard and his stories – books that in a way were formative to me. I stumbled upon Mercedes Lackey’s books too which I still think of with a hint of nostalgia, and I discovered Mike Resnick – some of his works are still among my favorite books of all times. But Isaak Asimov? I don’t think I ever read a single book. Philip K. Dick? One book and a half maybe. And Tolkien? Sure, but I read him after I became Andrzej Sapkowski’s fan, so I don’t hold the Lord of the Rings in such a high esteem as some other fans.
The list could go on.
Does it mean I shouldn’t consider myself a science-fiction and fantasy fan? Does it mean I’m not well-read? Maybe. But with every year I realize the time I have in the world is limited, and I become even more picky about the books I read. Catching up with classics is always a consideration, but in the end it’s about the books I think I’m going to enjoy. Be it in the pure entertainment aspect, or in the deeper connection with the book’s themes. That meant I enjoyed Samuel R. Delaney’s Babel-17 as it deals with language, but never felt compelled to get acquainted with Narnia. Though I admire George R.R. Martin for his work, after reading Game of Thrones I know his books aren’t for me.
As much as I tried to, I couldn’t bring myself to read Stanisław Lem’s works that many Polish fan of the genre would consider a must. On the other hand, I read many works by Jacek Dukaj – a shining star of ambitious contemporary science fiction in Poland.
Yet, I’m not entirely missing out. In the era of the ever-powerful Google engine, I can ensure I at least somewhat follow the new releases and broaden my knowledge of what old publications I missed. I might not read the book, but I can at least read up on what the book was about and what themes did it touch on. This broadens my reference points for the current works, ensuring I at least know the basics. I like to be aware of how dystopia and postapocalypse are actually two very distinct genres, or how other genres formed.
At the same time, I huff at all the “must-reads,” classic or contemporary, because in a way, being well-read and a fan of the genre means that I don’t pick my books blindly. I make conscious choices based on my preferences, focusing on what I like, and every now and then broadening my perspectives with a chosen classic or even a book outside of my comfort zone. Sure, I could read a bit more in general, and I regret that I don’t, but it doesn’t mean that there’s a checklist I have to clear before calling myself a fan.
So, even though I’m sometimes curious about it, Pride and Prejudice and all the other classics will have to wait. I’m sorry, dear Jane Austen, I really am. But before I get to you, I have Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo and Dan Simmon’s Hyperion to read for the tenth or twentieth time, and a looming pile of other books to dive into.
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I’m so glad I’m not the only one! I haven’t read much Austen, Hemingway, or Faulkner. But I have read (and loved) Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina, which I bet most of my American counterparts have not read.
I’m happy that I wrote this post, then. It’s good to remind some people that with so many books, everyone has a different canon of “must-reads”. I haven’t read many of the Russian “classics” (aside for Master and Margaret and Crime and Punishment), but I have a list of Japanese writers I’ve read that are not super-popular-nowadays Haruki Murakami. 🙂
I completely agree with your post. I’m an American and read a few of the classics in school, but I can’t say there was a classics author that has shaped me as a writer. Although I want to re-read some of the classics as an adult. I have been influenced more by contemporary authors. Someone saying you’re this or that based on something like not reading a certain author. is just silly and narrow-minded. Read what you want to read and enjoy it! Life’s to short to force yourself to read all of the “classics” or read books you don’t enjoy.
Agreed! Too many books and not enough life to read them all. That’s why I actually started DNF-ing the ones that I really didn’t enjoy.
I agree with others here. Read what you want. Don’t allow anyone to dictate what you should and shouldn’t read. As long as you are reading, keep it up!
Speaking of which, I should be reading more and I feel mildly guilty about it… :X
I haven’t read Pride & Prejudice either. Nor many other great works, nor do I probably ever will. I have so many things to read–from science over history to literature–that I don’t think I will squeeze in anything I’m told I ‘have to’. Besides, anybody tells me something is a must makes me immediately suspicious as to their aims. This is not 1918. It’s 2018 and we have witnessed an explosion of literature and genres in the meantime. Back in the good ol’ days having a must-read list was fairly manageable. Plus, it provided you with talking points, quippy understandable quotes, plus you would know when you were expected to chuckle, while smoking your cigar and making sure your top hat doesn’t fall off. But these times are over. Thank God.
I love Bulhakov, Joseph Conrad and George Orwell. I respect Solzhenitsyn and Koestler, but I haven’t read Moby Dick yet. I love sci-fi, but I can’t stand Isaac Asimov or Dan Simmons, yet I enjoy Alastair Reynolds. I have a top hat, but no cigar. How many people will think me inappropriate in today’s cyber saloons? How many people should I think inappropriate if they don’t follow my arbitrary standards?
There, a portion of rebellious anarchy. It’s 8:01 in Munich and I just finished my first angry morning coffee. I should be writing. I think I will.
Thanks for sharing :). I hope you did write.
(Also, can’t stand Dan Simmons? I think someone is due for some brainwashing then! 😉 )
I actually did write that day, hey. And I even got one piece done that has been frustrating me for some time. There is a type of writer’s grumpy that can be only resolved by caffeination and getting things written.
(Dan Simmons; oh, I did mention that, did I? Let’s just say gustam non disputandum est. He’s one hell of a good writer, and he has an amazing imagination, but it doesn’t connect with me, at all. I spent hours discussing the finer points with Garret and Kate–who loved the Saga–and I don’t think any amount of brainwashing will help me. 😉 I noticed there’s this type of writer, whom you either love, or hate, but there’s no middle ground. I’m also no big friend of the Cantebury Tales, so maybe there’s a link.)
I agree, I’ve tried to read some classics and just couldn’t get into them. Life’s too short. I started reading The Three Muskateers, I actually read a lot of it, but then I began to loath the characters. I tried to read Don Quixote, and I found it tough to read because it seemed like it was just making a mockery of a mentally ill man.
I have read a lot of Charles Dickens, Azimov, and a few other classics, and I’ve enjoyed them. But my journey has taught me to read what I actually like the sound of, hang the rest.
Also, I read Pride and Prejudice years ago. Can’t remember it. At all.
Good point: as we read more, we become more and more picky about what’s “good” (in our perspective), and what we’re going to enjoy.
It’s a good thing really. There just isn’t enough time to read “all the books” 😀
Your post reminds me of a video I watched recently. Are you familiar with fantasy author V.E. Schwab? She was invited to give the annual Tolkien lecture this year at Pembroke College (Oxford University) – and as she confesses at the beginning, she has never read Tolkien. Instead, the main idea of her lecture was about the many different doors that fantasy fans and writers can find into the genre, and it was inspired by a recent “discussion” at a conference she had spoken at, and one of her fellow panelists said how Tolkien books should be required reading for fantasy writers. I can share the link here, if you’re interested in watching it. (I also think the transcript is available on Tor.com, since Tor publishes Schwab’s adult fantasy novels.)
Anyway. It’s sort of an indirect way of saying that everyone should read whatever they want to read. Who really cares if you’re a fan of Tolkien or not? And if someone does care, then they’re not very open-minded. My fantasy reading began with some of the classics (Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Ursula K. Le Guin, Harry Potter / J.K. Rowling), but more out of choice instead of feeling pressured to start with the greats. But there are plenty of classics in fantasy and other genres I haven’t read, either – like Jane Austen’s novels. I have a copy of Sense & Sensibility that I inherited from my paternal grandmother after she passed away. I lost interest partway through reading it (I find her writing style hard to follow, but then again writing has evolved so much since the mid-1800s), but I will never get rid of it because of its sentimental value.
I know VE Schwab and will gladly watch the speech if you have the link handy.
You also brought up another interesting thing: a classic is also age-dependent.
In no way I’d consider Harry Potter a classic, since I was well into my adulthood and even further down the path of being a SFF when it was written and first published. Yet, for younger people, it might be considered part of the classics already.
Great. Here’s a link to the V.E. Schwab video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmtqtDZQcN8 Enjoy!
I’ve found the best way to enjoy some of the classics is to watch the BBC films of them. I’ve seen most of Charles Dickens work that way, as well as Jane Austen. You get the highlights of the story, with a much lesser time commitment (without having to slog through pages of descriptions!). The one that started it all? Pride and Prejudice (and while there are several versions, you must watch the one with Collin Firth as Mr. Darcy. My mom has a crush on him thanks to this film!).
And while I consider myself a YA Fantasy addict, I have read so many titles that no one has ever heard of, while being unable to interest myself in the entire works of Tolkien (book 1 was good – hobbits are cute. After that? It turned into a travel log!). Great post.
Oooh, good idea with the film adaptation. Easy way to check if the story appeals to us – and if it does, it might be enough to read the book.
And I’ll keep in mind your recommendation – I’m not sure if Netflix or Amazon Prime have that version of P&P, but if they do, I’ll give it a go.
Oh dear… literary snobbery is alive and well, isn’t it? What a shame that there are some folks out there who insist on erecting barriers to keep the rest of the oiks out, because in order to be one of the chosen few, you must scramble over this particular hurdle – Dickens or Austen or Tolkein or Simmonds or… And that’s ALL it is – snobbery. Barriers. Hurdles.
I didn’t manage to get through 50 Shades – but do I regard myself as BETTER than those who did? Nope. We have different tastes, that’s all. I’ll give you strong arguments as to why I didn’t like it – but I won’t insist that you can’t join my gang unless you read the books I like instead.
So I’m absolutely with you, Joanna. No one should have to PROVE they are worthy by reading a particular author or book…
Thank you, Sarah! It’s nice to write a post like that and see there are people who think the same way. I guess we create a counterbalance to those “elite book club” people who insist that unless you read screenplays of some 17th century Egyptian poet, you aren’t well-read enough to call yourself a bookworm. 😉
I love the concept of being part of a community who love reading and books. There is a whole bunch of reading matter that doesn’t do it for me – but who the heck am I to look down my nose and call someone a lesser reader because they don’t want to read what I like??
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