Do you want to read more classics but aren’t sure where to start? Have you attempted to read classics before but felt they weren’t for you? If so, the Conquering Classics series is for you! This is the second post in an ongoing series with tips and advice on how to read classics for beginners. You can read the first post ‘Tips for Reading Classics’ here. In today’s post, I’ll be sharing five recommendations for where to begin with reading classics.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
Subgenre: Gothic Publication year: 1890 Synopsis: When a portrait is painted of the devillshly handsome Dorian Gray, he is forced to take a closer look at himself and realises that external beauty is rarely a precursor for the beauty within.
Despite being written over a century ago, The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very accessible read. The plot is straightforward and the exploration of morality, vanity and arrogance continues to strike a chord with modern audiences. It’s an atmospheric and haunting tale which provides an in-depth character study on Dorian Gray and has a very memorable ending.
1984 by George Orwell
Subgenre: SciFi Publication year: 1949 Synopsis: Set in a post-apocolyptic Britain, Winston Smith grows disillusioned with the totalitarian, repressive political system under Big Brother and dreams of a new, better world.
1984 is the pillar of dystopian scifi fiction. Because it was published in the 20th century, the language is more familiar than that which is featured in many pre-20th century novels. Its depiction of dicatorship and government control is interesting and terrifying, and still plays on the fears many of us have today about the future of our world.
Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
Subgenre: Gothic horror Publication year: 1872 Synopsis: Laura and her father live a solitary and quiet lifestyle in the wilderness of Styria, until they offer refuge to Carmilla as their house guest. Mysterious and secretive, Carmilla is not all she appears to be.
Carmilla is a gothic horror novella which is known for being the main influence for Dracula. It’s short enough that it can be read in an hour or two and is the ideal read if you’re interested in Dracula but don’t want to commit to a 400+ page novel. Like all gothic novels, it’s atmospheric and slow-building with an open ending, but provides a flavour for the slower, more intentional writing style that’s common in classics.
The Outsiders by S. E. Hinton
Subgenre: YA Publication year: 1967 Synopsis: Ponyboy and his band of misfit friends navigate the trials and tribulations of being teenagers in a this dramatic coming of age tale.
If you’ve read any of my other posts, you’ll know how much I adore The Outsiders. It’s a heart-wrenching tale which is accessible for all readers because it’s targeted at a younger audience and was published in the late sixties. Although it won’t necessarily familiarise you with the style of earlier classics, it’s the ideal place to start if you want something that’s more reflective of modern day.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
Subgenre: Romance Publication year: 1818 Synopsis: Catherine is a romantic at heart who is obsessed with gothic novels. When she’s introduced to eligible bachelor, Henry Tilney, she gets swept away in her romantic fantasies with unexpected and hilarious results.
When you hear people speaking about Jane Austen you’ll hear a lot about Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, but rarely Northanger Abbey. Yet I think this is the ideal place to start with Austen and a great place to start with classics in general. Not only is it the first novel Austen ever wrote, but it’s a short, charming and funny read. It perfectly captures the tone of polite Victorian society and satirical humour which is commonly featured in 19th century classics.
These five books introduced me to the classics genre and helped me to overcome my high-school aversion to classic literature. They’re all short, accessible reads which will enable you to familarise yourself with some of the language, themes and settings that can commonly be found in classic novels.
Do you want to read more classics but aren’t sure where to start? Have you attempted to read classics before but felt they weren’t for you? If so, the Conquering Classics series is for you! This is the first post in an ongoing series with tips and advice on how to read classics for beginners. For years I had an aversion to classics because of how much I disliked studying classics at school. I avoided classics because I thought that they simply weren’t the books for me, but classics aren’t something to be avoided. Classics can be accessible and enjoyable for all readers with the right approach. With that in mind, in this post, I’ll be sharing my top 10 tips on how to get started with reading classics.
Tip #1 – Find your niche
Here’s the thing: “Classics” is not technically a book genre, it’s more of a category of books that contains every genre and sub-genre within it. A classic is widely regarded to be a noteworthy book that has made a significant contribution to literature, but there’s no singular or coherent definition of what a classic is. The only thing that truly ties classics together as a category is that the books were all written 50 or more years ago. Beyond that, classics come from a broad range of time periods, places and authors, with varying writing styles, themes, literary devices and plots. The Lord of the Rings and Pride and Prejudice are both classics, yet wildly different. So take some time to identify what you’re looking for in a classic and avoid relying on “The 100 Must-Read Books of All Time” type of lists. Classics cover every sub-genre that exists, whether it’s romance, sci-fi, crime thriller, fantasy etc., so you will always be able to find a classic that caters to your tastes.
Tip #2 – Start with modern classics (20th century)
20th century classics more closely reflect today’s world than books written pre-20th century, meaning you’re less likely to have difficulties in getting to grips with the setting, language, social norms, and themes. Well-known 20th century classics such as The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984 practically read like a modern text in terms of the language and writing style. They are also more likely to be shorter in length than the tomes of the 19th century, which brings me nicely to Tip #3.
Tip #3 – Opt for shorter classics
The key with classics is to slowly build yourself up in terms of length, because those hefty classics take a lot of commitment and brain energy. When I first decided to try classics I picked out The Count of Monte Cristo which averages out at a whopping 1200 pages! Don’t make the same mistake as me; take it easy to begin with. I’d advise going for books no more than 300 pages, and if possible, stick with novellas. For novella recommendations check out ‘My Favourite Novellas’ post, it includes a bunch of classics. I’ll also be recommending five classics for beginners in the next post in the Conquering Classics series, all of which are on the lighter side in terms of page count.
Tip #4 – Read children’s classics
This tip fits well with Tip #3, because children’s classics are generally short in length. In addition to being short, children’s classics are familiar to most of us and make for light-hearted and enjoyable reads. It’s a useful way to introduce yourself to some of the language and writing style’s used in other classics. There are so many amazing children’s classics out there that I would recommend which are great for adults including Anne of Green Gables, Peter Pan, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia. For more recommendations for children’s classics check out my post where I share my favourite children’s books.
Tip #5 – Read slow
Many of the larger 19th century classics were serialised at the time they were written, meaning they were designed to be read in chunks over a prolonged period of time. A Tale of Two Cities wasn’t meant to be binge-read, it was written to be slowly devoured, like many other classics. However, even with shorter classics, it’s worth taking your time to read them. Classics often tackle dark, serious and complex topics or themes and indulge in flowery prose and long descriptions, so allow yourself time to sit with them. If you try to rush your way through, you won’t be able to gain the full appreciation for what you’re reading or connect to the deeper meaning of the story.
Tip #6 – Use the tools available to you
Classics can be challenging to read sometimes, so if you don’t understand a word, look it up in the dictionary. If you read a chapter and you’re confused about what happened, check out a chapter summary. If a reference is made that you don’t understand, do a little reading about the period/place it’s set in and familiarise yourself with it. There’s no shame in utilising the wealth of information that’s out there about classics to support your own reading of it. I often research classics I’m reading so that I’m aware of the key themes. Many classics also have introductions, notes and indexes to help readers to gain a firmer understanding of the book. If you’re reading fiction, you could also watch TV/film adaptations to get a general understanding of the plot beforehand, which I’ve found particularly useful for Shakespeare’s works.
Tip #7 – Buddy reador join a book club
Classics are the best books to read with others because there’s so much information, research and discourse surrounding them. These are the types of books that are designed to be at the centre of a discussion. Reading with others can help make the experience of reading classics fun and provide an opportunity to to critically engage with the book. Talking with others can also help clarify details you’re fuzzy on and gain a better understanding of the text through discussion and exchanging ideas/opinions with others.
Tip #8 – Let go of negative preconceptions
“They’re boring”; “They’re not for me”; “They’re too slow”; “They’re complicated”; “They’re overrated”; “I won’t understand them”. These are some of the reasons why I didn’t pick up a classic for pleasure until I was 25 years old, and are probably the same reasons others avoid reading classics. The problem is that like any other category of books, classics are so broad and varied that they can’t and shouldn’t be judged as a whole. Would you avoid reading every book written in the 21st century if you read one that you didn’t enjoy? No? Then why would you swear off every book written before the 21st century based on reading one book you didn’t enjoy? There’s no escaping the fact that classics won’t be for everyone and that some people simply won’t want to read them, but if you’re here reading ths then it means you want to at the very least try and to do that, so it’s important to let go of these preconceptions, or at the very least be open to challenging them.
Tip #9 – Appreciate classics for what they are
Building on from Tip #8, it’s important to take classics at face value. The way that authors write and the way readers engage with books now has completely changed since most classics were written. Entertainment has evolved, readers have different preferences and this means that it’s futile to compare classic literature to contemporary literature. Even if you read a classic from your favourite genre, it will be completely different stylistically to a contemporary from the same genre. With that in mind, if you’re picking up a classic for the first time ever or the first time in a while, go into it knowing that it most likely won’t be comparable to contemporary books. It’s likely that a classic will be slow in places and that there’ll be words you don’t understand or you have to go back and re-read a sentence because it was so long you lost track (I’m looking at you, Dickens 😂), but it’s worth it to go on the journey of reading a book you love.
Tip #10 – If at first you don’t succeed, try again
Very few things in life that are worth having come easily, the same goes for reading. Reading takes commitment, time and patience, and classics require this arguably more so than any other genre of books. You might not love the very first classic you pick up, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find others that you love. Classics can be an acquired taste and sometimes it takes time to fully appreciate them and see their value. It took me months of reading classics before I got to a place where I felt like I was really enjoying them, and they’ve become some of the most rewarding and enjoyable books to read.
That concludes the firt post in Conquering Classics series. I hope these tips are helpful to those of you that have been considering trying to read more classics. The next post in the series will be ‘5 Classic Book Recommendations for Beginners’.