On “Classics” and the redemption of dead time.

“A classic is a book that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read”

Mark Twain

Why do you read?

One genre that I got into a couple of years ago was classics. We’ve all seen those web articles “100 books to read before you die“, I felt a little embarrassed that I used to be a librarian & yet I’d regularly only hit somewhere in the 30s with those articles. Part of why I read is that I want to grow myself. I want to have a bigger picture of my world & to understand things (and books) that have garners almost universal praise.That said, there is a reason why they say that quote above. Some of those classics can just feel impenetrable to get through. It was the rise of the audiobook that helped get me over the line.

Lots of people I speak to say that they find it hard to concentrate when they are listening as opposed to reading, though I often find the opposite true. If I am reading something that isn’t engaging me at a deep level, I can “read” 5 or so pages, then suddenly realise that I can’t tell you what I’ve just been looking at. With an audiobook, I might not get the nuance of every word, but I can really just ease into the story as a whole.

What I particularly like about audiobooks is how they can recover “dead time” for me. It started when I was living in the shire and my day off was a Wednesday. I’d take our dog for a walk along the coast for an hour or two. There was always some value in letting my mind wander & sift through my life, but I also loved the opportunity to jump into a good book. For some reason, I particularly loved the juxtaposition of enjoying a view, the sun in my face, and yet working through the depravations of “The Gulag Archipelago“, or the dreary & painful relationships in “Wuthering Heights“.

The difficult part of the quote about classics is that sometimes people just want to read these books so that they can say that they have read them. I have to say that I enjoy getting a higher count on the “100 lists”. But I think you can also read the quote in a different way. The reality is that for most people, Classic literature is not an “easy read”. I read more Stephen King than anyone else and part of that is that it is just so easy to read his stories. Try and read Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo by comparison and you have to work through a much slower story style, language that can be dense, historical stuff to navigate, and a moral framework that is in a different generation.

There are two big differences with Classical literature though:

  1. The classics help us understand culture. So many of these great books are the foundations of literary themes that play out in other areas. We can also see direct homages to them. Lisa Simpson builds a diorama of Poe’s “The Tell-tale Heart” and “The Raven”. Solzhenitsyn’s “Prose and poems” gives a helpful insight into the life and lunacy that was communist Russia.
  2. A lot of the classics are classics because they have been so artfully put together. I read Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian” late last year. I found myself driven to a dictionary again and again to unpack lots of words, some in Spanish, some complex, or super-specific, but in the end it was worth it because McCarthy captured such a real sense of life in the Wild West near the Mexican border.

So why do you read?

If it’s purely for enjoyment or escapism, then it may be that reading Classics is not for you. Or maybe you’re smarter, or have a higher brow than me & classical literature just naturally resonates with you? But if you suspect that you live somewhere in between, then it’s worth looking for the “reading” style that works for you. There are some amazing books out there, and though they are hard work, the payoff is worth it even more, even if you don’t do the top 100 questionairre!

What’s your favourite classic & why?


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