People may be reticent to admit this aloud, but the biggest attraction of reading a classic novel is to have said you’ve read it. Sure, there are common smoke screens deployed to make the act of reading a classic anything besides self-serving — “I want to participate in the cultural dialectic of history” or some similar B.A. BS — but those rationalizations, those bits of misdirection that serve to remove the individual reader from the smug spotlight by turning the act of reading into an act of cultural participation, are actually self-undermining. The choice to read (and then discuss*) a classic, then, is often an egocentric attempt to achieve cultural kudos because the exact challenging, difficult, this-book-will-make-you-think allure attributed to the classics — one of their most appealing characteristics — creates an unattainable standard of textual “mastery” that most readers can’t hope to obtain. It’s an impossible uphill battle where credit is sought for simply treading on the slope.
*(To be fair, the easiest solution to this problem is for people to stop using the artistic preferences as means of identifying their so-called intellect, to cease trying to turn personal lists of favorite pieces of art — movies, books, television shows, etc. — into a displays of brainpower. Really, we’d be better off if people just shut up about what art they were consuming because, like sharing your dream that has symbolism only to you, nobody actually gives a crap. But where’s the fun in that?)
What’s helpful is that, thanks to search engines and the canonization of certain texts in U.S. secondary education, most people are aware of the general definition of “classic literature.” Dickens wrote classics, Joyce wrote classics, Austen wrote classics; you know the drill. Which books are classics is not exactly critical — though that’s a fun conversation for another time, with lots of talk about Dead White Men on syllabi — but what makes those books considered classics is important because their draw is what leads people to read them, and that draw is what makes the act of reading them so oddly self-defeating.
On the most basic level, a novel is a considered a classic because it is in some way challenging, either to the reader in the present day (challenging in terms of language or form) or to the reader in the time it was written (challenging in terms of content). There are other ways in which a novel becomes a classic, yes, but the “difficult” reputation is most pertinent. People are drawn to reading classic novels because they are “hard.” The struggle associated with reading them is seen as some sort of reward, something analogous to every time your dad made you pulled weeds and haul gravel “‘cuz it’s good for ya.” As readers, we want credit for having tackled something so difficult. This is a strange desire (not because seeking credit is somehow abnormal, but because seeking credit in an almost unachievable task seems like a colossal time waster).
To be blunt, it is impossible to truly feel the impact of a groundbreaking classic novel unless you were around when it was written. It’s true. Oh, you can approximate the experience by delving into graduate-level literature studies, but there’s a big difference between “I know that novels during time T had X characteristic, and then novel N came along with Y and changed things” and the far more personal “I was reading novels with X characteristic, unaware that I was even living within what would be later defined as a time T, and then novel N came along with Y and rocked my damn world.” (As you can tell, I excelled in algebra.)
One of the biggest reasons why young students have a hard time identifying with classic novels that may have pushed all the social buttons back in the day is that said students live in the modern world, those buttons now appearing as silly/shameful reminders of days long evolved from. The most learned and dedicated readers, those who can come closest to truly understand a classic for its true cultural weight, are academics, and (thankfully) not everyone has the time to immerse themselves in literary academia, to spend ghastly sums of money learning the requisite historical context to really know and, more importantly, feel what, say, Finnegans Wake is all about.
So, really, there is no true way to experience the challenging nature of a classic as it pertains to the historical context in which it was originally published unless you’re in possession of a time machine and have the weird desire to use that technology to become intimately familiar with the impact of Thomas Hardy novels. (Back in high school, Hardy was the Bane of my existence in English class.)
Remaining, then, is the other component of what helps make a novel a classic: the challenge to the modern reader. Once again, we run into a problem of specialized knowledge rooted in history. Novels can be difficult because on a textual level they are unfamiliar, be it in diction or syntax or any other formal structure. This difficulty is actually surmountable, but it requires a similar level of deep, particular knowledge regarding both the juxtaposition of a classic’s characteristics with other novels of the era and the precise vocabulary needed to explain/define those characteristics (think back to those “literary devices” you are forced to needlessly memorize back in school).
Novels often rely on variations of self — of their prescribed genre, say — to enhance what we’ll clumsily refer to as “meaning.” If a novel uses violations or reinterpretations of tropes, forms, expectations, etc. to achieve some sort of depth beyond just the text, then to a reader wanting to understand a classic novel, an intimate knowledge of exactly what it is that’s being violated is required.
This level of understanding demands time and outside reading, work beyond the scope of effort likely justifiable to even the most avid reader when utilitarian allocations of time are concerned. Reading a classic novel is a research project; it is not an endeavor for the lazy.
So, then, the challenging nature of classic novels is a bit more complex than might initially appear. They are difficult in both form and in content, and to comprehend and overcome those challenges requires an effort bordering on the Quixotic impossible. So what’s the problem? Well, to take on the task of tackling a classic novel is to acknowledge it’s perceived cultural status of “difficult,” and while such a recognition is meant to empower you as a reader in contrast to those around you — Hey, look what novel smarty-pants me is one-third done with! — it has to logically coincide with your understanding that other people may be able to gain more from the text than you thanks to their education/experience. Lacking a Ph.D., there is almost no way for you to come out ahead in this scenario. What have you accomplished by slogging through, say, Gravity’s Rainbow when a professor at Yale has read it hundreds of times in the past few decades?
The answer is, well, your get to say you’ve read it. Welcome to the cultural elite; here’s your mental caviar bib! Think about it: If it is nearly impossible to truly overcome some the challenges posed by a classic text, and if taking on such a book is implicit with the understanding that someone may understand the book more than you, the only truly attainable goal, then, is to simply say you’ve tackled it. You can discuss it — either by talking over other peoples’ heads with an air of superiority or by deferring politely to someone, likely in a tweed jacket, more well-versed than you — and that’s what matters. You’re reading of the book is a magical pass that allows you to access a certain, desirable, privileged realm of conversation.
“Now wait a minute,” you might protest, “if the ability to discuss what we’ve read to others is the most attractive quality of reading a novel, then doesn’t that mean everyone should just read Gone Girl and Twilight since those trash novels are what’s popular? Wouldn’t that mean you could talk about what you’ve read to more people?” That’s a fair point. However, what’s important to remember is that the people drawn to reading classics are likely not the people salivating over the latest Airplane Lit. release.
The appeal of being able to share your reading experience with statistically a greater number of people is only valuable if you want to associate with and be associated with said people. But we tend to think we’re smarter than the average person on the street, so that’s why attention is focused on plowing through the classics: it allows us to be symbolically linked with a class of people we admire. We want to be known as someone who “reads the classics” because we respect the type of people whom “read the classics.”
To be part of their private circle is alluring because it reinforces our arrogant assumptions about our own intelligence compared to others below us — disregard that other people know more than me, what’s important is that I know more than you.
What’s fascinating about this desiring of intellectual bragging rights via affiliation with a certain demographic of art enthusiasts is that it seems almost unique to novels, at least on a widespread cultural scale. Sure, there will be snobs and elitist sucking the fun out of every art form, but our conception of reading gives novels a bizarrely elevated status. There is atonal, intentionally cacophonous music that is praised, sure, but on the whole people prefer tunes they can dance to, music rooted in an understood genre. Certain independent and experimental films can seemingly take Hollywood by storm, but even the most Cannes-worshipping moviegoer can find something worthwhile in a generic popcorn flick. Books, however, possess a different cultural clout. We expect more out of novels.
There are good reason as to why books are seemingly, for lack of a better term, “more respected” in comparison to other artistic mediums. The positive effects reading has on mental health, acuity, and development have all been well-documented. This serves as the most basic justification for why we hold novels in such a high regard; reading is actively good for you. The second reason relates to the inherently lonely and personal nature of reading. A movie last only a few hours; a book can last for months. You can’t really read and do something else at the same time, whereas other forms of art are more passively received, ergo allowing multitasking to occur without the fear of losing comprehension. Finishing a book takes time, though, and we want to ensure that time is well spent.
The personal investment of time required by reading, then, creates the environment in which we want to use what we’ve read as means of signifying our belonging to a certain group. We want to “cash in” the time we devoted to a classic novel. There are few other way to “get” something from the lonely task that is reading besides possessing the ability to connect, all the solitary time traded in for the ability to now socialize with specific and desirable fellow readers. Reading causes you to be isolated, an ostensibly egotistical act considering the connected world we live in, and we need a means (conversing with other readers) to dilute that selfishness. Yet, as was previously said, to read the classics is inescapably selfish in a way, an act of trying to ensure that the other readers you can now connect with are the people you want to be thought of alongside. Really, the whole situation is kind of messy. Not only is the pursuit of a reputation as someone who “reads the classics” kind of snobbish, but it is also unattainable thanks to the limitations hindering a “complete” understanding of a classic novel within the contexts of era and genre. It’s futile and foolhardy.
Let’s be clear: choosing to read a classic novel doesn’t make you a bad, arrogant, or undesirable person. It doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be annoying or pretentious. However, we live in a cultural where personal tastes are increasingly important (and visible) as signifiers of who we are. The problem is not with the individual but with the system. In a time where connotations reign supreme, almost all acts, from the monumental to the mundane, seem rife for analysis and extrapolation. The solution is not to brand lovers of classic literature as somehow evil, but rather to indict the system that reinforces the social value and cultural clout of classic novels. To eliminate such a social practice would allow, finally, more contemporary novels to receive their just dues, a positive change from the obsessions with relics we have now.
The compulsion to read classic novels, then, should not be confused with the compulsion to read respected, good literature that is more contemporary. They’re similar drives, yes, but their differences are important. You can read novels that challenge and push you without you having to battle against the text, without being forced to keep a tab open on your browser to a webpage for translating Old English into a more modern and comprehensible tongue. A novel may subvert formal normalcy and play around with literary devices in intricate ways — think House of Leaves — but at least those experiments exist within a language you’re familiar with. You can read novels that challenge the norms of the society you actively reside and participate in — thereby giving the novels the capacity to actually facilitate change in your life — not just novels that challenged the societal expectations of the 1800s. The intellectual effort is similar as when you read a more enshrined classic, but the end result is more satisfactory since more people around you will have likely read the modern novel, ergo making the isolated act of reading more “valuable” in the sense of having an interesting conversational topic at the next soiree. Classic novels of bygone eras are by no means worthless, but one should take caution when considering if they are personally worthwhile.
(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must return to my journey through Oroonoko. What, you haven’t read it? What’s wrong with you, philistine?)