How to Read and Enjoy a Classic Novel
Learn How to Appreciate Classic Novels
Classic novels become perennial favorites, read and beloved by countless readers across generations, for a reason--something in the story or the characters touches our hearts, captures our imaginations, or lingers in our minds long after we close the covers.
If you stop and think about it, the designation of something as a "classic" is really the highest recommendation there is--the book has been endorsed not only by its contemporary readers, but by readers across eras.
Yet some people won't touch a classic with a ten-foot pole, even if they love reading modern authors. Why is this, and how can everyone learn to read and enjoy classic novels?
Why People Don't Read Classic Novels
There are myriad reasons why people shy away from classic novels, but the most common might be that the novel is too difficult or that it will be too boring.
The truth in those two fears varies from person to person, and may even be accurate ! James Joyce's "Ulysses" likely won't be an understandable read for most, and the long, dense expository passages in "Les Miserables" couldn't be more boring.
However, there are classic novels for everyone--they aren't all boring, and they aren't all difficult! Many classics contain violent stories of passion, betrayal, suffering, determination, and love. Furthermore, the English language hasn't changed so much in the past 300 or so years that the books are unreadable--the works of Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, for instance, are just as fresh and sparkling today as they were when they were first published.
You will be better able to appreciate classic literature if you:
- Find a category of literature that interests you; and
- Find an outlet to discuss and analyze the novel with others.
Choosing a Category of Literature that Interests You
If you like to read contemporary novels, you probably already lean toward a certain genre of book--mystery, suspense, women's fiction, etc. It's easy to think of classics as under just that umbrella, but they fall within distinct genres as well.
If you love adventure stories and hate romance, you won't enjoy a Jane Austen novel; if you dislike character-driven epics, you won't like Dickens. It's important to think about your favorite genres and then choose a classic that fits within it; you can always expand your tastes later once you've tackled those first few pieces of literature.
Use the table below as a starting point for choosing authors based on genre.
Genres and Corresponding Classics
Classic Authors to Try
Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton
Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne
Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson
L.M. Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Sharing the Experience of a Classic Novel with Others
Classic novels are not just for entertainment--they're enriched by symbolism, tone, and all those English-y things you might have tried hard to forget when you completed the requirements for that part of your major. A large part of the reason classics become classics is because of the emotional response they invoke within readers, even readers who couldn't care less what Holden's hunting hat means in "Catcher in the Rye."
You may be surprised by how enjoyable it is to share the shock of how devastating Mr. Rochester's secret is in "Jane Eyre," or how despicable Uriah Heep is in "David Copperfield."
For your first classic, try joining a reading challenge online (Goodreads and blogs host them frequently), and check in with others to discuss your thoughts, reactions, and feelings toward what you've read. This will keep you on track toward finishing your chosen classic, and also motivate you to think deeply about the work so you can discuss it with your group.
Or, if you're not into participating in groups, pick up a corresponding guide for the novel, to better faciliate your understanding of what makes that particular novel so rich. A good companion to a novel (for instance, the Norton Critical Edition series) will give you social and historical context that can deepen your appreciation for the book.
Reading a classic is truly a shared experience, because so very many people have enjoyed the novel before you--and sharing it with modern-day readers is an effective form of connection.
How and Why We Read Classic Literature
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