Reading for Fun and Points

Sherwood Smith wrote on Saturday about revisiting classics that were foisted on you as a teen and discovering that they were really pretty good (as always with Sherwood’s posts, she writes about many different things in one essay, but this is one part of what she’s talking about). I read a bunch of “classics”assigned in high school, as, I suspect, we all did, and some of them I cordially loathed. But I also had a fairly ambitious program of reading outside what was required at school, which was based on a simple criterion: if it was “classic,” or old, if I felt I should read it, I read it. Or wedged my way through it, regardless of actual comprehension. The only book that ground me to a halt was War and Peace. I read Candide, which I loved, and Manon Lescaut, which I liked, and Wuthering Heights, which made me want to slap every single character in it, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which is much, much longer than any film version had led me to believe.

Granted, at that age I was reading everything. Science Fiction from the spinner racks at the drug store; gothic romances, ditto; suspense and historicals from the library; and all sorts of books from my parents’ mixed bag collection of thrillers, best sellers, and classics. I homed in on the classics, i.e., anything I felt that I ought to read.

Did I enjoy them? Some of them, very much. Others I made it through the way I would eat liver for dinner: slowly and unhappily. So why do it? Because I really coveted markers of smartness. Throughout high school I racked up a body count of Great Books, a sort of intellectual check off list that I thought somehow improved my educational resume. I really really wanted to be smart, see, and if reading Crime and Punishment would help, then Crime and Punishment I would read. 

Some of the books read I made my way through once and never attempted again  (that run at War and Peace gave me such an aversion to Tolstoy that I never went back) and others I’ve read more than once–in the case of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, more or less annually. With books that I loved then, in most cases I have loved them later, but find layers of richness that escaped me on that first read.  

As for the rest of them? I think Sherwood was absolutely right that many of the books I read I was not ready for. I needed to be older to appreciate Dickens’s ability to sketch instantly recognizable characters. I needed to be older–and to know more history–to really get Eliot and Henry James and Dostoevsky. But you couldn’t tell me that when I was 15. I know now that I did myself a disservice in collecting great books like Pokemon. And–which I did not understand then–what’s a Great Book changes over time, the list keeps growing, and you will never catch them all.

In my next life I will leave some things to later. I will also be readier to understand that a few years can change my appreciation of a book. At least, I hope so.


About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Reading for Fun and Points — 9 Comments

  1. I suspect you might actually like War and Peace now, especially a good translation–there is so much comedy of manners in the high society scenes. But then there might be the resonance factor, too: if you’ve read the remarkable Claire Clairmont’s diaries (after Shelley’s death, and Byron told her to take a hike, she had to support herself. She was a governess for much of her very long life, and her journal and diaries are fascinating, especially her stint as a governess in Imperial Russia). Then there are memoirs of Borodino, including the woman who rode as a lancer, that inform Tolsoy’s great battle scenes . . . I found out that he went out to Borodino and talked to the peasants who had been stuck with burying the many, many bodies after both armies took off, and listened to their firsthand tales of the battle. It’s all there, brilliantly, in the book.

    • Almost you tempt me. It’s interesting that Tolstoy stopped me cold, where I embraced Dostoyevsky (I know, very different writers in style and outlook, aside from the Russianness).

      I have a long long flight to and from Helsinki. Maybe I’ll load up my Nook.

  2. I have not ever read War and Peace either, but I keep meaning to get around to the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. I stumbled across their translation of Anna Karenina and fell deep into it. (I’ll grant I never finished it, but that’s because I know how it ends and I just haven’t been able to face that.) Good translations make so much difference, something I learned in college when I read Greek plays. (You do not want to read Greek comedies translated by those who are embarrassed by bathroom and sex humor.)

    • I was weaned on the Richmond Lattimore translation of the Iliad, and can’t read it in any other format. This is not snobbery–it’s just what sounds right to me.

      • I think Lattimore’s Illiad may still be the best (will have to ask my nephew, the Latin teacher and classics scholar). But if you ever decide to read the plays of Aristophanes, go with the translations by Douglass Parker and William Arrowsmith. (They also did some great work with Euripides and Sophocles, too.)

  3. I admire your achievement so much. I read almost everything I could get my hands on in my teens, but, scared off by the boring and depressing classics foisted on me in class, carefully avoided others. The upside is that I read most of Dickens and all of Austen and Bronte when I was old enough to understand and had vocabulary enough to get the jokes, but am still catching up otherwise. I’ve had a lot of fun focusing on female authors, such as Mrs Oliphant (Kirsteen, Miss Marjoribanks), Mrs Edgworth, Fanny Burney and others.
    In youth, I treated all printed books as if they were literature. I grew out of that but Still think that a good book is a good book, no matter the genre or intended audience.
    I completely agree with teenage-you about Wuthering Heights. When I finally screwed up the courage to read it, I wanted to slap everyone in it for being narcissists, psychos or dupes.

      • Is that a different dog from the one belonging to Heathcliff’s wife, which he hanged? That’s where I finally got off the Heathcliff express.

        • If I had ever had a thing for Byronic heroes, Heathcliff would have cured me of it. I kind of like Rochester (Charlotte is my preferred Brontë) but that’s, in part, because he’s clever, and values Jane as she ought to be valued.