Sep 5, 2016

Should Every Writer Read the Classics?

What I want to be reading . . .
. . . and what I actually am 

If you've been reading the blog, you know I'm trying to read my way through The Guardian's 100 greatest novels of all time list and a science fiction classics list of about 190 books. Some of the books I've liked, and I'm not really talking about those in this post. Of course you should read the classics you like and enjoy. I've read many classics before this project, just because I wanted to.

But what about the one's you wouldn't read if they weren't on the list?

I've found myself doing a lot more "obligation reading" than before. I've read books I hated, books that I found so boring it's like time stopped when I read them, and books about subjects that I would rather avoid. If someone has decided a book is a classic, does that automatically make it a good book? Do I need to read the entire In Search of Lost Time to be able to appreciate Proust, or is it okay to stop halfway through? Some books seem to be on the list for historical reasons, like Clarissa, which was the first epistolary novel. Even my friend who actually likes that kind of thing said it bored her to tears. Maybe just an excerpt would suffice? I'm very bad at not finishing books. If I start something, I have a need to finish, even if I hate it. Persistence or stubbornness, I dunno.

Is life too short to read books you don't enjoy? I can't help wondering whether this is a colossal waste of time. I could be reading something I like, something that interests me. I could be writing. These are weeks and months of my life I'll never get back.

On the other hand, most of the time I can at least see why the book is considered a classic, even if it's not to my taste. I can learn from it. And it's nice to be able to discuss the classics. You can't be part of the conversation if you haven't read the book. Especially with the science fiction classics, it's also about the history of the genre, and that's important, too. Maybe it would be better to think of this as studying? Studying is hard work and you're not supposed to enjoy it all the time. When you do, it's a bonus.

For writing purposes, I feel like what works best for me is reading the weird stuff I like, especially non-fiction. With the classics, I worry that I'm just reading the same books every other wannabe writer is reading. Will this lead to unoriginality? Of course everyone gets different things out of what they read, so it's not that simple.

It's also worth noting that taste is subjective. My Want-To-Read list is probably someone else's Most-Hated-Books-Of-All-Time list. Sometimes I also wonder if I'm just reading the book at the wrong time of my life. Maybe sixty-year-old me will love Proust? Maybe I'm just too young and impatient and immature?

So, what do you think? Are classics you don't like worth it?


  1. Here's a light perspective: I remember that Hawkeye, the doctor in the comedy book MASH, said he got his name because his dad read the Classics Comics version of Last of the Mohicans. ... Maybe if we want "a check and balance" or a "seconder to the motion" for serious quality, then any classic novel that is not "good enough to be made into a Classics Comic" is not worth reading.

    1. That's a fun way to look at it:) I just googled "Proust Comic" and turns out there is one! I'm almost curious enough to order it just to see how they managed to make it work. Anyone seen this?

  2. Most classics I have read have been good - I guess there usually is a reason why they are considered classics. I think it' s also important to know what you don't like so it's not a waste of time to at least try to read classics (you can always stop if you hate the book).

    I read the first part of In search of lost time a long time ago. I guess I can't say I liked it. I could give it a try now that I am older. I had to read a couple of books by John Steinbeck when I was at school (teenager) and I have not read another book by him though that was almost 30 years ago. I think I was too young to read a story about a man who shot his own child (The Pearl). The "funniest" thing is that they still are reading that book in that school today. I have always loved books and I didn't like it as a teenager. How about teenage boys who don't want to read anything? Guess it will make them hate reading more and more.

    1. Yeah, it's weird what kids are asked to read for school. I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. It's weird that it suddenly feels like work. Being stuck with two books that I dislike sucks, but I know it's temporary and there are other books out there that I'll enjoy. This experience makes me wonder if reading in general is this hard for some people, like those boys who don't want to read.

      I think I'll keep slogging through Lost Time, but I'm so taking a break after I finish this volume. I'm thinking the entire Dresden Files series. And cake; there will definitely be cake of some sort. Hmm... maybe I should try to make madeleines?

  3. Maybe books should be read with cake. And wine. I just looked at your Guardian list of classics. I remember not finishing The Pilgrim's Progress, and I remember (from memory) Samuel Johnson's judgement on it: No one who ever finished The Pilgrim's Progress wished it were longer than it was. So I think it's OK to quit a classic.

    Perhaps there is a Zen to classics where they should be read at random whenever they appear, rather than from a list. I am enough of a reader that I recognize a classic title when I see it.

    On the other hand, Rita Mae Brown has a list to be read in historical order to develop skills as a writer, a list I will never have the time for. Her book on becoming a writer, called Starting From Scratch, gets only mediocre reviews on Amazon, but that is probably because people are intimidated by her demands for how to learn the craft. I'm sure you would like it.

    I find her inspiring, even if I cannot reach as high. Because of her advice I took a one semester Greek and Latin vocabulary class that has improved my appreciation of words.

    1. Sound interesting. I'll have to check her out. And yes, the whole point of the lists is to develop my writing skills. I can't believe anyone would read some of the stuff on those lists for fun. Unless you define fun as an educational experience? I also took a Latin class at university, but I don't remember much. I could probably manage a game of Scrabble, if I fudged the rules a bit...


Hello, stranger. What's on your mind?