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How to Read and Enjoy a Classic Novel

Updated on April 27, 2013
A color illustration from Jane Austen's "Emma," a classic novel.
A color illustration from Jane Austen's "Emma," a classic novel. | Source

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

Genre
Classic Authors to Try
Romance
Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton
Mystery/Suspense
Wilkie Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Humor
Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde
Adventure
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne
Science Fiction
H.G. Wells
Horror
Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson
Children's
L.M. Alcott, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Discussing a classic with others who are sharing your reading experience is an excellent way to increase your enjoyment of the book.
Discussing a classic with others who are sharing your reading experience is an excellent way to increase your enjoyment of the book. | Source

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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    • marieryan profile image

      Marie Ryan 

      4 years ago from Andalusia, Spain

      One of my favourite classics is ...The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy. Classic!

    • SaffronBlossom profile imageAUTHOR

      SaffronBlossom 

      5 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      John Steinbeck is a great suggestion! I usually trend toward British authors but I need to read more American authors...I'm sure I would enjoy them.

    • savvydating profile image

      Yves 

      5 years ago

      You have laid out a wonderful way for beginners to begin enjoying classics. I have always loved Charles Dickens. That Uriah Heep was someone you love to hate - repulsive in a fascinating way. Another author who is easy to read (for those who still have trepidation about reading classics) is John Steinbeck. Cannery Row, for example, would go under the Humor category. It's a fun book, even for people who are easily bored.

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