In high school and college English classes, we were exposed to classic texts–Greek epic poems, Victorian classics, Shakespearean plays–and most of us did the reading, or pretended to, begrudgingly. Our teachers told us we were studying some of the greatest pieces of literature ever written, but most of us hardly believed it. In fact, I’d fashion a guess that most of us probably didn’t quite finish all the reading we were supposed to.
I’ve been a bookworm since I learned how to read, and even I found myself skimming the pages of “My Antonia” and zoning out while the class listened to “The Iliad” on audiotape. Even the books I did dutifully read in school, I didn’t fully appreciate at the time, and that’s why I’m reading them again now. Whether you did your required reading in school or not, give them another try. You might be surprised by how your tastes have changed.
When graduated from college with my English degree I instantly began reading all the classics I should have read closely in school, but never did. I devoured “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, collected poems by Robert Frost, and “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot. What I found was that there was something very, very different about reading a book because I wanted to, and reading a book because it was on the syllabus.
Although I haven’t loved every classic that I’ve revisited since graduating, I have been able to appreciate these books in a new light and grow as a result of reading them. Here’s why I recommend that you revisit your school reading list:
You can read as slowly as you like.
One of the things I love about classics is that they give a glimpse into times when the language, mannerisms, and setting were far different from what we’re accustomed to today. This is wonderful, but it also makes reading challenging. Sometimes, a simple line of dialogue can take several minutes to dissect simply because it’s different from what we’re used to. Have you ever tried reading Shakespeare or Chaucer? Yeah, you feel me.
Once you’re out of school, you no longer need to rush your way through difficult books. You can take your time. I’ve been reading “The Iliad” for two months now and I still have over 200 pages to go. And you know what? It just doesn’t matter. I’m able to read at my own pace. I’m able to reread chapters that confuse me, because I’m not pressed for time. I’m no longer reading it because I need a good grade. I’m reading it because I want to soak up the plot, I want to understand the rage of Achilles, and in the odd chance that anyone ever approaches me and asks why I liked “The Iliad,” I’ll actually know what I’m talking about.
It’s okay to cheat.
I love buying copies of classics that have extensive introductory materials and plenty of footnotes and supplementary resources (The Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions are EXCELLENT). I love reading the preface and introduction of classic texts because they help me to acclimate to the setting of the book, and place myself historically in the text. If the introduction warns of spoilers, then I wait to read the intro after I’ve finished the text, which helps me to understand the book. And if you want to read spoilers or supplement your reading with SparkNotes, then who’s to stop you?
If you don’t like it, quit.
Another great thing about reading classics in your own time? No one’s holding accountable except for you. If your experience reading “Great Expectations” by Charles Dickens is comparable to having your teeth pulled, then put it down and read something else. Something that I’ve noticed since graduating is that I’m now much more likely to hold myself accountable for reading than I ever was in school.
Utilizing my newfound freedom to read slowly, reference supplemental materials, and call it quits when a book doesn’t appeal to me have all made me a stronger, happier reader. If you didn’t like the books you were required to study in school, or didn’t take the time to actually read them, give them another shot and see firsthand how reading for yourself, and not for a grade, can have great effect.
Haven’t read anything in awhile and need some tips to get back into it? Try here.
Love to read but not sure where to begin? Check out Business Insider’s “25 American Classics Everyone Should Read At Least Once.”