The Classics Debate!

A favorite topic for readers is whether or not we read classics.  There are definitely different camps of thought on this, and so the BBAW content development team thought it would be fun to have a dialogue about it!  Please welcome Danielle of There’s a Book and Michelle of That’s What She Read as they discuss reading classics.

M:  You state that you don’t like to read classics.  I have to ask why?  What have they ever done to you to deserve your scorn or avoidance? wink

D: What can I say? It could definitely be the moody, broody, dreary scenes that never seem to come to an end OR possibly the use of language which was purposefully written to make me feel less than intelligent OR it could just be the mere fact that I love so many current novels that it’s hard to want to pick up a “Classic”. OR, it could just be that Wuthering Heights finally did me in.

D: Your turn. So…you like Classics. How could this possibly be?

M:  I love history.  Do you know how much history a person can learn by reading a book written and set in the past?  Also, I never knew which modern novels would fit me, so I avoided them like the plague.  Seriously, entering a bookstore was intimidating. 

For the record, Wuthering Heights is one of my all-time favorite novels….ever.

D: I’m so very very sorry. No really, I know quite a few people who adore Wuthering Heights, but it just wasn’t for me sadly.

M: No biggie – I should have added a smiley face to that sentence.  I know many people who think I am off my rocker for liking such a dark, depressing book with such a dysfunctional romance.  I can’t help but admire the gothic aspects of it, which I love, as well as the continuity of the love story.  Even if Heathcliff is a complete jerk, you can’t argue that he doesn’t love Catherine with his whole heart and soul.

M: So, what is it about contemporary novels that you like so much? 

D: Quite possibly for the same reasons you love Wuthering Heights I love contemporary novels. They are edgy and dysfunctional, often very depressing and almost always thought provoking. But what I feel is different for me is the setting. With contemporary novels, there is a greater connection with me personally, having recently left the college and high school years, most of the characters I read about are going through many of the same struggles I had in a very similar way.

M: Interesting.  Classics do offer the same thing.  Quite often, the ones that remain popular were edgy and are definitely dysfunctional.  Victorian English novels are very depressing (try Tess of the D’Urbervilles or even Jude the Obscure), and they all provide food for thought because that was all there was to do when they were originally written.  The thing that draws me to classics is the universality.  While the settings might be completely different, the emotional drama remains the same no matter in which era a book was written.  That and the historical aspect of them.

D: Besides Wuthering Heights I’d love to know your top 5 Classic novels.

M: Top 5 Classics?  How do I keep it to just five?  In no particular order, Gone With the Wind, Atlas Shrugged, Rebecca, Crime and Punishment, and Dracula.  I could continue that list but those are the ones I’ve re-read most often and continue to love!  How’s that for eclectic reading?

D: Oh! I actually quite love Dracula, it’s definitely a favorite from my teenage years actually.

M:  Contemporary fiction is a very broad category. Do you tend to gravitate towards one particular genre?  What would make your top five favorite contemporary novels? 

D: Contemporary is a huge category and it’s a tough decision if I had to narrow it down. If I had my choice of any genre it would definitely be realistic Young Adult novels. I enjoy the paranormal and fantasy novels quite a bit, but more and more the realistic ones have been grabbing my attention. My top 5 contemporary novels? Cracked Up to Be by Courtney Summers, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Heart is Not the Size by Beth Kephart, The Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare and Jumpstart the World by Cathrine Ryan Hyde. Yes, I slightly cheated by including a series.

M:  When we were originally discussing this idea of a dialogue post, you mentioned that you can’t get through a classic.  You suggested earlier that it might be the “moody, broody, dreary scenes” or the use of language or just the fact that there are so many other contemporary novels out there that take priority for you.  If you enjoyed Dracula but not Wuthering Heights, is it the choice of classic you are choosing to read?  I say this because not all classics are moody and dreary and broody, and others use quite a familiar language to our modern vernacular.  What other ones have you tried to read that caused you to turn away from the classics? 

D: I’ve actually tried a few different classics including the two mentioned about as well as Pride and Prejudice, The Picture of Dorian Gray (though I’m actually a huge fan of Wilde’s plays), The Adventure’s of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter and The Grapes of Wrath. When looking over the list what I start to come up with as a theme for why I either disliked throughout or stopped reading it would definitely have more to do with the language. So many of the books have such different dialects and mannerisms that I’ve found it difficult to focus on the story. Instead I spend the majority of my time focusing in on the text, trying to understand what’s being said as opposed to just enjoying the story that’s unraveling.

M: Interesting.  So it’s the language itself.  For me, that is one of its attractions because I like being put into another country, another era.  There is something so authentic about it.  If done correctly, I end up believing that everyone should talk that that – in the dialect or using the same syntax – and I have to shake myself upon emerging from reading a book. 

M:  That being said, don’t you think the same thing could be true for contemporary literature?  Harry Potter is one example that comes to mind, using dialect and referencing uniquely British expressions. 

D: Definitely. I do think a lot of contemporary literature uses dialects to enhance the story. One of my favorite recent reads was Isabel Wolff’s A Vintage Affair. I loved being swept away to another country and I absolutely love British based novels. But it’s something about the awkwardness of Classics and the length of time it takes to get into the language. That’s not to say I feel that way about them all, it’s just that unless I have a vested interest in the subject matter I’m less inclined to want to take the time to get into the characters, which doesn’t happen for me with contemporary literature – no matter the dialect.

M: That’s even more interesting.  If I understand you correctly, you don’t mind dialects and difficult languages in contemporary novels but do not have the patience for the same in classics.  I guess this is something I do not understand because I find the subject matter similar in both areas, and I know there are modern-day novels that are just as awkward and time-consuming as you say classics are.  Are you a fan of contemporary literary fiction?

D: Not too much. There have been a few that I’ve read in the recent past and though I didn’t mind reading them, they aren’t my favorite reads of late.

M:  That makes sense.  Literary fiction is the modern-day version of classics, in my opinion.  If they aren’t a favorite read of yours now, then it is understandable why you would not be drawn to classics.

D: I think what it boils down to for me, and most likely for you as well, is that we all have different tastes. Because I love food analogies I have to relate it to the love my husband has for black licorice and sweet potatoes. Though I wouldn’t begrudge him his favorite treats, after my own experience with them I could hardly bring myself to consume them again. Fortunately enough for both of us there are plenty of other foods and books out there to keep us busy all the rest of our lives; and then some.

M:  Absolutely!  What brings us together is our love of books, and that is really what counts in the end.  It doesn’t matter what you read, so long as you keep on reading. 

M: And if you ever want to take another chance on a classic, I can definitely put together some recommendations to help change your mind on them!  wink

D: I completely agree! No matter what we read – we read! And I will definitely ask for recommendations should the day come. The same goes for you if you need a great contemporary book! :o)

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