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.