Weekly Geeks 2009-03: Classic examples

In the third Weekly Geeks of 2009, Ali has proposed some “fun with the classics,” and has offered a choice of four questions to answer (you have to do at least two, but can do all four if you wish). The applicable definition of classic for this assignment is “anything written over 100 years ago and still in print.” (If your memory needs jogging, see Classic Literature Library for examples.)

For your assignment this week, choose two or more of the following questions:

1) How do you feel about classic literature? Are you intimidated by it? Love it? Not sure because you never actually tried it? Don’t get why anyone reads anything else? Which classics, if any, have you truly loved? Which would you recommend for someone who has very little experience reading older books? Go all out, sell us on it! *

Like many of us, I was introduced to the classics through school-related reading, which I really can’t say I minded – I loved reading, and I mostly loved school. As a young adult – during college, and on through my twenties – I sought out the classics on my own; I felt the need to compensate for being a business major by making an extra effort to take in high culture and the liberal arts. I recovered eventually, though, mostly because as an adult woman with a family and a career, I just didn’t have the time or concentration necessary for books written in the style of the 18th and 19th centuries, when people had far more leisure to read. I also found that, in terms of content as well as style, my tastes really are more contemporary, and I gravitate to the “new” classics of the 20th century. Today’s “classics” were once contemporary literature themselves; I’d like to think that at least a few of the books I’m reading now could be “classics” in 50 to 75 years or so.

I’m not sure I’ve truly loved any of the classics since my childhood obsession with Louisa May Alcott, to be honest. I’ve appreciated most of the classics I’ve read – yes, even Wuthering Heights, even though I intensely dislike it – but for the most part, that’s as far as it goes. Maybe it’s because, for me, reading them has been more a matter of education – even if it was a self-directed curriculum – than genuine enjoyment. Therefore, I’m not sure I could convincingly “sell” anyone on reading a classic that he or she wasn’t already interested in.

2) A challenge, should you choose to accept it: Read at least one chapter of a classic novel, preferably by an author you’re not familiar with. Did you know you can find lots of classics in the public domain on the web? Check out The Popular Classic Book Corner, for example. Write a mini-review based on this chapter: what are your first impressions? Would you read further? (For a larger selection of authors, try The Complete Classic Literature Library). *

One nice thing about having entered the 21st century is that books written “over 100 years ago” now include those from the early 1900’s, but some of the books on the Popular Classic Book Corner list are a little too young just yet to qualify for this assignment. I’m not doing this task for WG, but I’ve bookmarked these sites on my cell phone; if I were ever stuck somewhere without a book and desperate for something to read, they could come in useful (and make me very glad I got that data plan with my new phone!).

3) Let’s say you’re vacationing with your dear cousin Myrtle, and she forgot to bring a book. The two of you venture into the hip independent bookstore around the corner, where she primly announces that she only reads classic literature. If you don’t find her a book, she’ll never let you get any reading done! What contemporary book/s with classic appeal would you pull off the shelf for her? *

If Myrtle has a sense of humor, this one’s easy – I would hand her a copy of The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. It’s not necessary to be extensively familiar with canonical English literature to enjoy the Thursday Next series, but it helps you catch some references and get even more fun out of it.

However, since she made this announcement “primly,” I suspect Myrtle might be a bit humor-deficient. If that’s the case, I might search out some books that were influenced by classics, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winners March by Geraldine Brooks (inspired by Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women) or A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s King Lear).

If she’s open to something a little more “genre,” a literary thriller like Elizabeth Kostova’s Dracula-themed The Historian (although I still haven’t managed to finish it myself) or Jennifer Lee Carrell’s Interred with Their Bones, about a “lost” Shakespeare play, might meet her standards because of their subject matter.

And since they’re all less than 100 years old, I suspect Myrtle may not have read any of these modern classics: East of Eden by John Steinbeck (granted, that one was an Oprah pick, and in Myrtle’s case I’m not sure whether that’s a plus or a minus); The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver; or Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

Hopefully, at least one of these books would meet Myrtle’s literary-merit requirements, and we could both head off to find comfortable spots to read in peace!

4) As you explore the other Weekly Geeks posts: Did any inspire you to want to read a book you’ve never read before—or reread one to give it another chance? Tell us all about it, including a link to the post or posts that sparked your interest. If you end up reading the book, be sure to include a link to your post about it in a future Weekly Geeks post!

How do you feel about reading the classics – is it fun, or does it feel like school? (Then again, maybe school felt like fun for you; to be honest, most of time it did for me!) Are there any particular classics – or books influenced by classics, or destined to become classics – that you’d like to recommend?

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  1. I like to pick up the classics every so often in my quest to be ‘well-read’ but I do miss those class discussions after – especially if I adored and respected the instructor. I would learn so much more than reading on my own.

  2. Care – That’s probably one reason I associate classics with school so much :-). It wasn’t just reading them for their own sakes, and then discussing them, though; it was learning how to read deeper, and understanding the elements of story.

    Serena – I’d be interested in your opinion of Interred With Their Boneshere’s my review from September 2007.

    Sometimes I wish I liked classics more, but on the other hand, there’s so much new stuff to read too :-)!

  3. The Historian took me a while to get through it, but I did enjoy it. I think I was the only one in our book club who did!

    I thought of The Poisonwood Bible as a modern-day classic, but of course not until after I was done with my post! I also just thought of all the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books-surely those can be considered classics, even though they haven’t hit our 100 year mark yet.

  4. Dreamybee – I’m about three-fourths done and still think I want to finish it eventually, but she started bringing in yet more backstory and I just got tired :-).

    I think that classics for kids may not have such a strict time window, and I agree that the “Little House” books are classics!

  5. I definitely still have a love affair with some of the classics, but like you, I tend to gravitate more towards contemporary literature. I didn’t mind reading the classics in school (unless it was Shakespeare) for the most part. I especially loved those lists teachers would hand out, instructing us to read two to three books from the list by the end of the semester.

    I love your suggestions for Cousin Myrtle. She just might find her reading tastes broadening if she gave any of those titles a try.