Sunday, 18 November 2012

Do Classic Books Intimidate Me?

I have just read the November question from the Classics Club blog. (here)

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?)

I think the classic book that intimidates me the most would have to be Ulysses by James Joyce. It is larger than a door stopper and longer than Route 66.  The fact that the time period in the book takes place over a mere 24 hour time period in the ordinary day of Leopold Bloom in Dublin means to me there must be an incredible amount of descriptions of everything! Moods? Feelings? Convoluted adjectives of every piece of furniture? I don't know as I really have no idea what this book is about.  However I have always avowed to read it. Don't ask me why. Probably just to say in casual conversation, "Last week whilst reading Ulysses I was interrupted by a phone call ......" and then pretend I am not a snob. (Really I am not.)

Longer than  America's Route 66
Wikpedia describes Ulysses  as being first serialised in parts in the American journal The Little Review from March 1918 to December 1920. It wasn't published in its entirety until 1922 by Sylvia Beach in February 1922.

Many of the long classics of the past were serialised in magazines over long time periods. These books were not meant to be read in a single sitting. It would actually be fun to have a list of the books that were originally published in serial form and perhaps there is another challenge looming in that?

But back to the Classics Club November question. Yes, classics have always intimidated me.  They seem very much other worldly, of such a different time period than the one I am familiar with.  I wonder how much of the vocabulary I won't understand. I wonder why inferences always go over my head. Believe me they often do.  I am not a literary scholar by any means. Symbolism always drives me mad because often I need it explained to me.  However I do know what I like and I must say I feel much less intimidated by American classics than English classics.

After all my family and I grew up outside of lush Michigan corn fields. Chevy trucks were the choice of transport. People read but quite often those periodicals had pictures of tractors on the front and people walked down the street in John Deere caps.

I can't recall when growing up in a town of 5000 people that men standing on corners with undulating toothpicks hanging from the corners of their mouth saying, "Man , that book Middlemarch is long. I didn't think Lidgate would ever resolve his issues!"  The Farmer's Almanac was always the best seller of the year.
"A Classic is something everybody wants to have
read" Mark Twain

We had a small library that we sneaked into in order to get out of the chaos that was sometimes our home. It was quiet but there were no friends in that library. The librarians were skinny, bad tempered and the coke bottle lens in their glasses prevented us from enjoying any eye contact at all. It was the religious, conservative midwest and once having read all of the books in the children's section we were quickly removed from the adult section of the  library where all of the classics including the Austens, Hemingways, Steinbecks and Dickens lived.  They are not for our 10 or 11 year old eyes.  Censorship was rife. We had to be 12 years old at least to walk into that section and even then we had to be a tall 12 year old. I was never a tall 12 year old.
Grand Ledge, Michigan public library, It has a larger addition added to
the back of it but when I was a child this was the main part of it. 

So yes, going into a library in a new city and trying to choose a great classic to read has always been a challenge. No wonder my long career was based in the sciences and technology areas of education and health and not the arts.

However since joining the Classics club and reading many blogs from many countries (USA, UK, Canada, Africa and of course Australia) I have learned that the classics are wonderful stories with the same dilemmas we all face today. Relationships, greed, poverty, wealth (well haven't had that one yet), reform and change. No big deal.  Yes some of these books are long. Yet many of them are not.  I find a great satisfaction in tackling them and an even greater satisfaction in finishing them.  I finished Middlemarch last night and literally skipped through the house to announce that fact to my husband. I think the response I got was close to, "So?"  I have come to realise that we all must relish our own successes.

So Yes!  the Classics club has pushed me into a direction I have long wanted to ride into to.  I will tackle Ulysses but I am now keener to dive into Moby Dick.  Once again I am more familiar with an American Herman Melville than an Irish James Joyce.  So if any of you are interested in my progress you'll just have to keep returning to this page to see what books I tick off the list and if in fact I really can get through 50 classics (list is here) in 5 years.  Now THAT really is intimidating but it's not as if I'll be put out onto the streets if I fail. I do find looking forward to the challenge good fun.

I'd be curious myself as which classic book people have always shied away from. Comments welcome!


  1. Though I don't think I'm initimidated by classics per se, you've mentioned two of the authors & books that do intimidate me: Melville & Moby Dick, and anything by James Joyce. I'd add Thomas Hardy to the list, though I've downloaded one of his books to try. I'll definitely follow your Melville reading!

  2. Thanks Lisa. I do plan on trying out Moby Dick. I have always wanted to read it so will get into it. I have a shiny new copy of it (Penguin Classics) and look forward to seeing what I think of it. Another friend mentioned on my Facebook she couldn't read it but she was still in school. Always nice to hear from you. Pam


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