During my English Literature degree I had a strange relationship with classics. I loved studying them and talking about them, but actually reading them, not so much. Then once I was out of education my attitude towards them began to change. I started to want to read them, to understand the numerous pop culture references that stemmed from works in the canon and the watch adaptations with less guilt and more knowledge. Collecting different editions of classics and modern classics has become a little of an obsession, but more than anything I’ve noticed how different reading classics now is too bad when I was at school, college or university.
The lack of pressure really does wonders for me. Though I have vowed to read a classic each month this year – and I’ve stuck to it so far! – there isn’t the same burden to read on a deadline and with the intention to pull it apart. It completely transforms the experience for me. I can leisurely read a few chapters a day while reading other novels alongside it; it doesn’t matter if it takes me two weeks. Before I had a chunky, difficult classic a week for three or four different university modules but now it’s under my own steam.
As I mentioned before, I also really enjoy collecting the beautiful editions. My personal favourites that I’m collecting are the Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Clothbound Classics, Little Black Classics and Penguin English Library – Penguin really do have the monopoly on the classics market. No more do I have to suffer the bulky, ugly Norton Critical Editions or the traditional black classics that Penguin are probably most famous for. I get to have rows of gorgeous spines lining my shelves instead. Also, I don’t have to deface them! I sincerely hated highlighting, notating and underlining whole chunks of text and I was really glad to leave that behind.
But I miss studying them. I miss learning the context: the theories, the social implications, the historical surroundings, the religious connotations and the author’s biographical weight on the novel. Knowing those things as you read really enhance the experience for me. They make me think in a way that I never would have otherwise and everybody reads into it differently. The difference in opinion brought a discussion alive. Reading is so subjective and that isn’t more apparent that when you’re sitting in a degree seminar with a room of people with different backgrounds and experiences. I want my scope to still be expanded beyond my own reading.
Lots of the things that you’re taught are hidden. You have to have bounds of knowledge and have been taught the way to read to find hidden subtext in an overarching theme, a soliloquy, a character, a tone, a phrase, a symbol or an author’s intention. And not everyone takes on the teaching in the same way so you’re not going to get everything – and I really don’t want to miss anything! That element that I miss could be pivotal. It could completely change my reading of the entire novel and I MISSED IT.
I want the best of both worlds when it comes to classics. I want to read in a relaxed, self-projected environment but I want to be taught all of the things that I miss when reading myself. I miss the extras. I miss having conversations.
Do read classics differently to when you were at school/university? Did you get put off classics completely in education? Do you miss studying them?