From contemporary to classic

I have long had a difficult relationship with two genres: nonfiction and the classics.

The former, I’ve come to like in certain guises. Memoirs and biographies, because I’m fascinated by people. Also, more prosaic books on trends, business and society, if for no other reason that I occasionally review them for my job.

Meanwhile, I’ve always turned my nose up at anything written, well, before my lifetime. When told we needed to include one classic on our reading list in a high school English class, I asked if VC Andrews counted. Worryingly, I seem to recall that the answer was affirmative.

Last year I ventured into some of the most challenging reading territory I’ve ever tackled. Atlas Shrugged. Madame Bovary. Love in the Time of Cholera. The Master and Margarita.

And in the last month, I went back even further to the English literary greats. Three of them, to be precise.

I started with Great Expectations. Now, I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of the second-layer meanings, especially around Havisham and her creepy old house. English was always my best subject, but I never particularly cared for diving into deep literary analysis. I just wanted to be left alone to read what I wanted.

Nonetheless, I found it a true-blue page turner and tore through it in a couple of days. Dickens’ prose was clear and spare and Pip immediately stole my heart, as did Joe. While a lot of it was predictable, for sure, and many coincidences too tidy by far for my liking, I really couldn’t find much fault with the storytelling or the plot itself.

By contrast, Jane Austen’s Emma was laborious, to say the least. The endless exposition! My word. The obsession with class and marriage, the inane dialogue, the lack of any real depth to the characters and their lives, I could understand. There may not have been much of a plot as such, but I quite enjoyed the characters with all their flaws, and seeing just where they all ended up. It’s Gossip Girl, really, set in a different time.

The actual narrative, though, was so fussy, so overwrought I could not help but revert to skimming of the worst degree (a friend suggested Austen by Twitter might agree with me more. Sounds like a fantastic idea, actually). And I don’t think I missed much in doing so.

Ditto for Jane Eyre. My complaint about Charlotte Bronte is similar; I loved the story itself. I do like a heroine with a backbone and while sad misfit Jane starts out a bit of a wimpy child, she’s quite the iron woman by the time she’s, well, my age. Forget Mills and Boon, this is a romance for the thinking woman.

Again, though, while an enjoyable tale of love, life and hardship, the prose was a real slog to get through at times. I’ll admit, I don’t have much patience for long-windedness. When younger, I hated reading books that had no illustrations at all. Today, I don’t require pictures in my novels, but I do prefer at least some dialogue on every double page spread. When it comes to beautiful prose, less is more in my view – it stands out more that way.

What are some of your favourite classics?

5 thoughts on “From contemporary to classic

  • Reply Michelle February 2, 2012 at 04:22

    I would recommend several off-the-beaten-path classics. One is The Decameron, which is 100 very short stories (around 10 pages or less) told by a group of 20-somethings travelling from town to town to avoid the Black Plague (set in 14C Italy). It’s written by Bocaccio and it’s dirty as hell; super fun. All these people did was have sex! (Or try very hard to.)

    The other shockingly good book is something called Njal’s Saga, which is of all things under the sun an Icelandic epic tale of life in Iceland many moons ago. You won’t believe how fun it is to read. Also: super violent! It’s published by Penguin; it should be easy to get a copy from a library. Here is the Wiki link:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nj%C3%A1ls_saga

    Enjoy!

  • Reply Little Miss Moneybags February 2, 2012 at 07:13

    I’ve always loved Great Expectations, and I find the rest of Dickens’s books equally accessible. I’m not a big fan of Jane Austen or the Bronte sisters, but I like Mary Shelley (The Last Man is fantastic!) and HG Wells. I also love the ones that have been turned into musicals – Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera.

    My next classic read, inspired by the BBC, are the Sherlock Holmes novels and short stories.

  • Reply simpleislandliving February 2, 2012 at 08:13

    I’m a big fan of Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice is a book I can devour over and over again. But, I’m a big prose girl.
    Of course, I also love me a good romance novel and mystery novel. But Anais Nin rocks my world. Prose to me, when I get a good one, doesn’t speak to me in words, rather it creates colors in my mind. That’s what I get from Anais Nin.
    And I totally get that not everyone lives with their heads in the clouds like me, because, duh. That’s just silly talk.
    Oddly enough, although I love Jane Austen, I hate the Bronte sisters. Can’t stand them.

  • Reply Lisa Clark February 2, 2012 at 08:56

    Am glad that I am not the only one who found Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte way too wordie!
    The only classic reading I did at high school was The Odyssey and I must confess my only classic reading has been The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas and Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. Don’t really know if either of those count?

    • Reply eemusings February 2, 2012 at 09:09

      Absolutely! I love Little Women (and I THINK I’ve read Monte Cristo, though don’t remember much of it.)

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