A Beginner’s Guide to Reading Classic Literature

Classic Literature is something which should be accessible for all. Source: Stocksnap (via Pixabay)

By Ruth Hoey | Advice Editor

The term ‘Classic literature’ is bound up in the many connotations which it has collected over the centuries. For some people, it is an elitist list of texts designed to be referred to by educated people to make sure that you don’t understand what they’re saying. To others, they are works of incredible literary genius, which to even peep inside the cover would be far too intimidating. Others still find they are cryptic texts, written in a style of writing that is incomprehensible.

Nevertheless,  Maybe it was to finally understand the references. Or it could just be to see what all the fuss is about.

Classic literature offers a wealth of profound social commentary and ground-breaking insight into humanity which transcend time. These novels retain their popularity because of their universal nature and the deep issues which they tackle. It is definitely worth your time to invest in reading a few.

Whatever your reasons are, and however many classics you want to tackle, here are some tips to help you along in your exploration.

 Start Simple and Build up

Reading classic novels is a skill to be developed over time. If you dive straight into Joyce’s Ulysses, you’ll most likely just end up lost and confused. It would be a good idea to start with simple, easy to read texts and build up from there.

Children’s Classics

One way to do this would be to begin with children’s classics. Children’s classics offer accessible language (as the target audience is children) and have simple, easy to follow narratives. It may seem ridiculous at first to be reading children’s books such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Secret Garden . However, reading these will help to situate you within the (if somewhat simplified) style of classic literature.

Modern Classics

Modern classics would be a good next step in this approach. Novels ranging from 1900 to the 1960s are easier to digest than earlier classics. This is because writing styles and settings will be somewhat familiar to you however still decidedly not those of the present day.  JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is set in the 1940s dealing with issues of teenage angst and societies superficiality. The familiar themes and social issues present make this an accessible classic for beginners. Other modern classics examples include F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Earlier Classics

After familiarising yourself with the style of the Modern Classics, it’s time to try some earlier ones. Again, as a general rule, the further back in time you go, the more difficult the texts will be to follow. So, work backwards. This may be a good time to try some of Austen’s works such as Pride and Prejudice or Emma, or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. After these begin to get easier to comprehend, you can move further back to works of Shakespeare and then it may be possible to tackle Homer’s The Odyssey or The Iliad.

Read What You Like

Classic literature spans a wide variety of genres. If you know that you like a particular genre, such as Science Fiction or Romance, then find Classics which fit those criteria. If you are invested in the plot, it is much easier to follow the narrative.

One way to do this is find lists of classics which are sorted by category or offer a description of the plot. There are many online resources available for this. Penguin Publishers offers a reader chosen top 100 classics list; The Guardian similarly lists ‘100 best novels’ and TIME Magazine follows suit.

Draw up a list of novels which catch your interest from the lists in these articles and give some of them a try.

You Don’t Have to Finish Them All

To finish, this is your own personal journey through Classic Literature. You don’t have to enjoy all of the books that you read. Just because there are other people out there who value a particular text, does not mean it has to hold the same value for you. There is nothing stopping you from leaving a book mid chapter and finding another more suited to your tastes.

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