Forgetting about the classics

Calling all ex-English students! Does anyone else have to make a conscious effort to remember to read ‘the classics’ since they finished their degree? I left university craving modern fiction and that’s mostly what I’ve been reading ever since.

Until this year, I could count on one hand the ‘classics’ I’d read since leaving uni. Here they are: The Count of Monte Cristo (en français – long, but loved it) and Wuthering Heights, which I somehow never read as part of my Victorian Lit module but thought was fabulous (and what a wonderfully weird anomaly it is, when you look at everything else being written at the time). And…I can’t think of many others. Certainly few of the weighty nineteenth-century French tomes I bought from the bouquinistes and charming second-hand French bookshops.

Bouquinistes by the Seine

Parisian bouquinistes. Who sold me books I still haven’t read.

But the shame eventually got to me. One too many cries of ‘What do you mean, you haven’t read [insert name of time-honoured classic]…and you studied English…??’ and I had a major case of reading guilt. I’m not the only one – the fab Savidge Reads recently embarked on Classically Challenged, a programme of reading that would let him get around to exploring some of those big, canonical authors that are meant to be, you know, the greatest writers of all time. His posts on this epic literary diet make for good reading, and are encouraging for anyone who’s a bit nervous about going back to the classics. (Tip: you don’t have to think they’re all marvellous! I learnt this from The Last of the Mohicans. OH GOD I REALLY HATED THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS.)

So I’ve been trying to get my backside into gear and read some of those fat old books that were earnestly bought before university but have languished on my shelves ever since. Of course, they’re not all fat and chunky – but somehow the doorstops are the ones that have called out to me most, challenging me to conquer them.

Anna Karenina was one of the best investments I made. ‘Investment’ is the word. To tackle these kind of books again I found I almost had to go on a training regime: to adjust my palate, build up my stamina, train myself to read for longer. To be a more patient, deliberate sort of reader; to force myself to keep going and nibble away. I realised, with dismay, that taking a jolting bus journey to work every day had surreptitiously altered my reading habits: I wanted sharp, clean writing and short, snappy books I could devour in a couple of journeys. Either that, or something so wonderfully escapist and gripping that I positively welcomed the chance to read it by the light of my iphone on those dark winter evenings when the bus had, yet again, failed to turn up. I’m thinking: Game of Thrones, any Carlos Ruiz Zafòn (I urge you to read The Shadow of the Wind trilogy) and The Time Traveler’s Wife (yes, I know, only just got round to reading that too)…

Me reading Anna Karenina

Here I am reading Anna Karenina in the Caribbean. I know – dedicated, right? It beat reading it on the bus.

Mind you, I think we give ourselves a guilt complex too readily. We forget that many massive, Victorian-era novels were serial publications, published in installments (I’m thinking of Dickens, who I haven’t touched for years).

But Anna was worth the slog. Even the agricultural reform bits with Levin weren’t too bad. I’d heard about how achingly slow and difficult these parts of the book were, so was perhaps prepared for a real endurance test – but it was OK! (It helps that Levin is awesome.)

What next? I feel it should be a French doorstop, but I may need some sort of carrot, like another bookish trip to look forward to. Mmm. Which massive nineteenth-century French novel has the most exotic setting??