So you want to read a classic?

I love books. I love them in any shape or form. I love most genres and love to hoard copies of all of my favourites. I'm not looking forward to the day I move out of my parents' house, because it'll involve shifting a lot of books...

As an English Literature graduate, I think classic literature will always have a special place in my heart (even though some of them were quite difficult to drag myself through). So I'm sharing my tips for getting into classical literature!

Start small and build up
Don't expect to go straight into reading Tolstoy, it'll just end in all war and no peace. It's a lot easier to start with modern classics and work your way backwards. Mid 20th Century works such as The Bell Jar by Slyvia Plath and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee are great pieces of literature that aren't too dense (although the former contains some heavy subject matter). Sometimes books where you're constantly flipping to the footnotes or to the character list at the front (Tolstoy likes to use even more characters than George RR Martin does in Game of Thrones) can be hard going if you're in the mood for some light reading. One of the reasons that I prefer Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte over Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte is because I find it a lot easier to read. I had to keep flipping to the back of the latter every time Joseph spoke because I just couldn't work out what he was saying - I might be northern but 19th Century Yorkshire dialect is nothing like it is today!

Watch the film first
So many people will find this blasphemous. I'm really sorry. But watching a good adaptation really does help! I would never really have considered reading War and Peace if it wasn't for the BBC adaptation that was on earlier in the year. Having a face to the name makes it a lot easier to visualise things, especially when there are a lot of characters with similar names! Sometimes a plot can seem quite confusing, so having it played out in front of you makes things clearer. This is especially true of Shakespeare, which is obviously meant to be watched and not read. Intonation is key with language - sometimes you can get the complete wrong end of the stick! But I do stress that it should be a good quality adaptation as often things can get left out. Even though I love the 2005 Keira Knightley film, the 1994 BBC miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice is probably a lot closer to the source material because they have more time to work with.

Know the historical context

Often in my lectures we didn't actually cover the book itself, but instead the context surrounding it. I've had lectures on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and sensationalist newspaper reports in the 19th Century that sparked the country's interest in murder mystery literature.
It's not a secret that I'm a big fan of Lucy Worsley documentaries, and some of her more literature-based ones came in handy when I was doing my degree. My dissertation was on women in Restoration theatre, and luckily she did a whole series about the period! With older pieces of classic literature, it really helps you to immerse yourself if you understand the time period.

Buy a good edition

We always used to get told off at university if we bought cheap copies of classics. Obviously we still did anyway because when you're a poor student a £2 Wordsworth Classics copy is better than a £12 Norton Critical Edition. However, buying a good edition such as Penguin Classics or Oxford World Classics is often the best, especially if it's been translated into English from another language. You can pick them up quite cheaply from charity shops or on Amazon/eBay, so it's good to keep an eye out.
Mainly I think these kinds of editions are good because they usually have an introduction that'll help explain the wider context of the piece. And the footnotes can be pretty extensive - I love my Penguin edition of The Great Gatsby because the footnotes explain everything that you could ever want to know about the context and subtext of Fitzgerald's work.

Stick with it!

Classics can be especially intimidating during the opening chapters when they are establishing characters/the plot. You might end up getting quite bogged down in the in-depth description of a country manor and put the book down before you make it to the actual plot (Austen, I'm looking at you). Classics can be really good reads but a bit of perseverance might be needed to get to the good bits. What I would suggest is using Goodreads to track your progress as you can enter your progress and find out what percentage of the book you've read, which can make those thick classics a bit less daunting. It can also stop you from giving up on a book, due to the guilt involved from removing a book from your "Currently Reading" list!

But if you're not enjoying it then there's no shame in giving up on a classic. Some of them really are crap and have got high reputations from academics rather than real people. Sometimes a book might be a classic piece of literature from its time period, but just isn't interesting to a modern reader. You don't want to be reading a book just so you can say you've read it. Read a book because you enjoy it; there's no shame in putting it down if it doesn't interest you.

What're your favourite classics? Do you have any more suggestions for tackling the tricky ones?

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