An Education in the Classics: Books

Source: Bgolub via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Source: Bgolub via flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A while ago, I was strolling through my local Barnes & Noble at the beginning of the summer. I took a look at the display set up for summer reading for students, and it occurred to me that although I was diligent in reading books assigned to me throughout school there were still so many classics I had not read. I decided then and there to work in the classics into my novel rotation. To start I selected just one book to read during that particular summer and then spent the rest of the year reading current fare. Years after this toe dipping I have put the classics into a heavier rotation and try to read a classic novel every few months.


I have found that the older I get the easier it is to read older books. For example, freshman year English class I was supposed to read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. I tried, really I did, but I ended up reading the cliff-notes. To this day I still feel bad that when discussing the book in class, I answered a question no one else could answer and the only reason I knew it was because I cheated and read the cliff-notes. In my senior year of college I took a British Literature course to fill my general requirement and I, for the most part, enjoyed the books assigned. Of note were Jane Eyre and Dickens’s Hard Times. I concocted the theory when I started my adult-life summer reading program- the more years I have under my belt the easier it is for me to understand and thus the more enjoyment I get from Dickens and potentially other classic writers as well. Although Dickens wasn’t first on my list I have gotten to him, reading Great Expectations as an adult. And my theory was correct. I no longer viewed his writing as an assignment I must complete but a good book I enjoyed reading. Coming full circle, I read A Tale of Two Cities. Though I have to admit out of the Dickens that I have read, it was the most difficult to get through. That being said, the ending was totally worth it as well as the imagery and social commentary present throughout the book. Hopefully my new pursuit of the classics serves as an apology to my freshman English teacher for reading the cliff-notes back then.

Where do you stand in the Classics vs. Contemporary Books Debate?

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I’ll briefly recap those that I’ve read, followed by a short list of those I plan to read soon. SPOILER ALERT- I discuss the plots of the books below, not giving too much away but some plot details are mentioned.

1. Catch-22- I really liked this war-time story, it’s definitely not a traditional war story which is probably why I liked it since traditional war stories are not my thing. It was ridiculous and convoluted but that was the point. Particularly I loved the scenarios and conversations with Milo, the mess officer, and his antics in buying and selling goods around the world. Yossarian makes an interesting narrator because you don’t know what to believe- is everything he is observing and commenting on really happening? Or is the situation he finds himself in driving him insane?

2. A Brave New World- Huxley’s novel didn’t go exactly where I expected it to go. I enjoy this type of story about a futuristic world where things are a lot different from how the reader knows them to be. Generally these novels introduce the new world, which I find fascinating- all the details that make it different from life as we known it- then introduce a character in this new world that longs for something else and questions everything. Generally the lead character then tries to find answers and ends up sabotaging the establishment. The story started out that way but was seriously detoured in showing John and his mother, Linda, on the reservation. I wasn’t expecting this direct comparison between the old world and new world. To me, it was unanticipated but clever to see played out, as John and Linda come into the new world and attempt to acclimate.

William Holbrook Beard's Depiction of Charles Dickens and His Characters.  Source: wikimedia commons, public domain
William Holbrook Beard's Depiction of Charles Dickens and His Characters. Source: wikimedia commons, public domain

3. Great Expectations- Overall I really liked this book, there was a sense of pride with being able to say I completed it. But at the same time I didn’t feel burdened while I was reading it. I made it through, albeit a little slower than I make it through new books, and I was even on the edge of my seat at points. One thing, which interestingly was contested, was the end- Dickens originally had the ending one way and a close friend and fellow writer suggested he change it. I wish he hadn’t have changed it. (If you have read it and are curious about this check this link out)

4. A Tale of Two Cities- This was a tough one for me to get through; I had trouble with the language. I actually checked myself after the early sections by going online and reading summaries to make sure I grasped everything. I was glad I did because an important plot point would have been lost on me otherwise. As I said above I was glad to trudge through the book, for one to get over my guilt but also because the end was really good and made the book worthwhile.


Sherlock Holmes Statue,Edinburgh. Source: Jonathan Oldenbuck, wikimedia commons,CC BY-SA 3.0
Sherlock Holmes Statue,Edinburgh. Source: Jonathan Oldenbuck, wikimedia commons,CC BY-SA 3.0

5. The Sherlock Holmes Series – I’ve read about 70% of all of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Canon and I love it. I’m saving the remainder because I don’t want it to end. I have a chronological complete collection and I was immediately hooked reading ‘A Study in Scarlet.’ I just love the two completely different parts of the story- the first introducing not only Watson and Sherlock but also the mystery at hand and then the second part of the story explaining the background behind the murder. I’ve really enjoyed the majority of the short stories, throughout the canon. There really isn’t much filler in my opinion and I get caught up in the time period.


I hope to tackle Wuthering Heights, Animal Farm, the Edgar Allan Poe Series, and Agatha Christie’s works in the future.


Suggestions welcome!


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Comments 2 comments

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thebiologyofleah 4 years ago from Massachusetts Author

To be honest, when I realized how much easier it is for me to read the classics the older I get I thought that as well- are high school english teachers just wasting their time on young people? I wish there was a way you could just read whatever you wanted in high school. Kids would read more if they were allowed to pick and isn't that the point overall?


Angela 4 years ago

So, do you think it is worth making high school students read classics they can't really appreciate? Or does that just discourage them from reading anything?

Also, I tried several times to read Catch-22 and it drove me nuts.

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