Giving myself a second chance with the classics

Giving myself a second chance with the classics

giving myself a second chance with the classics

Join me in welcoming Bronwyn Lea to MMD. 

I was the little girl with her nose in a book.

There were girls with Barbies, girls with ponies, girls with sparkly pens and girls with sticker collections. But I was the girl with a book. My mom says I started reading just shy of my third birthday, and some of my most cherished childhood friends were creations of the fantastic world of fiction.

No one was more surprised than me, then, to discover that I did not enjoy English literature at school. Thinking perhaps high school lackluster lessons were to blame, I signed up for English Lit in my first year at college. I lasted one semester, and called it quits.

This raised confusing questions. If I loved reading books, why did I not love the literature that was supposed to be the “best” the English language had to offer? Why, when I heard something described as a “classic”, did I immediately write it off? “I love to immerse myself in reading,” I explained to others. “I just don’t like analyzing it to death. It takes the fun out of it.”

And so it was that I decided against reading any more of the classics. I found the characters distasteful , and (with the exception of Jane Austen), the stories unenjoyable. Why read those anymore if I didn’t have to?

But then, a few weeks ago, everything changed when I found myself immersed in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, Karen Swallow Prior’s combination of beautiful memoir and masterful literature review.

In it, Prior tells her coming of age story, the tale of how God wooed her to himself through the words of the literary greats. Chapter by chapter, she unwraps the truths she learned about beauty, marriage, sex, love, stories and sentiment, worship and wonder: all lessons she learned from reading the classics. Great Expectations taught her the magic of telling stories, Jane Eyre about becoming. Each chapter introduces one of the classics I had dismissed, and in each chapter she showed me something I had not dreamed I would see. It seems a cliché to say it, but it is true: I laughed. I cried.

I realized some time ago that not all enjoyable movies were “good” movies, and that there were some movies which were excellent and important – but they were not necessarily enjoyable. For some reason, I had not yet learned that lesson about literature.

Reading Booked left me with a longing to see what Prior saw. The idea that fiction could be deeply uncomfortable or even outright unpleasant, and yet still be excellent and worth my time, was a new thought.

It’s been half a lifetime since I dropped that final English literature class, but I’m thinking that with nearly twenty years of life under my belt, maybe it’s time for me to read the classics again. With more questions. With more maturity. With less demand for entertainment, and perhaps more readiness for enlightenment.

So far, I’ve read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was hellishly long, but gave an insight into the human condition I didn’t think was possible using just words. Then I jumped back into my comfort zone and read Simsion’s The Rosie Project in one sitting. Right now, I’m reading the classic Prior unwrapped in chapter 9 of Booked: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. I’m halfway in, and I’m reading with eyes wide open. I’m hooked.

It’s not quite accurate to say I’m giving the classics a second chance. Perhaps it would better to say I’m giving myself a second chance with the classics. I’m older now. I have less answers and more questions. I’m willing to listen.

Some things change: I’m a lot bigger now, and the print is a lot smaller. But some things stay the same: I’m still the girl with my nose in a book.

Bronwyn Lea is a book-lover, blog-writer, Pinterest-phobe and South-African-accented-speaker. She spends her days keeping her three littles fed and watered. Her writing has appeared at Think Christian, Start Marriage Right, and Christianity Today’s Her.meneutics. She blogs at www.bronlea.com, or you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. She’d be thrilled if you said hi.

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64 comments

  1. Thank you for the recommendation for Booked – it sounds like an amazing read and I look forward to enjoying it too.

    I had a similar experience of loving literature but hating the classics at college and university, but thankfully stuck with it as eventually we were reading contemporary fiction (and even some graphic novels) which I adored. However I felt at odds with myself for not reading some of the classics, and in recent months endeavoured to revisit at least a few.

    For me, the most accessible way was by following the year-long reading list for The Harvard Classics (15 minutes of guided reading each day for a year). So far I’ve read a little of a lot of books, and even set up a website for it. I probably won’t ever end up reading everything in its entirety (especially as so many are non-fiction) but it has helped me discover more specific meaning in books I may otherwise never have touched.

  2. Molly says:

    I am going to search for Booked as well. I have a love hate relationship with the classics (American and English). Some I love, like Jane Austen and Edgar Allen Poe, while others I hate. Romeo and Juliet and The Scarlet Letter top that list. Still I like to try out different books I missed in high school and college and reread others from time to time. It also seems that a lot of books called “classics” in school are/were much newer than the 19th century, so my personal definition might be skewed. Please keep us up to date with what classic you are reading! I’d like to know more.

      • Molly says:

        It depends. If you like poetry, I would say start with “The Bells” and move on to some of his others. “The Raven” is what he is the poem he is best known for, but it’s not my favorite. His short stories are suspenseful. Poe was more into psychological suspense than gore, but he can get graphic. “The Tell Tale Heart” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” can give you the shivers pretty well.

  3. April says:

    I read Booked last year and loved it. I’m a great fan of the classics and agree with Prior that literature has the power to shape and define our souls. If you haven’t read many classics, a good one to start with is Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It’s beautiful and true – much like Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.

  4. Jeannie says:

    I read Booked this past year and loved it. I hope you enjoy your exploration of the classics; I’m no expert in that area but I get your distinction between reading for entertainment and reading for enlightenment.

      • Jeannie says:

        Well, my favourite is The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Sad but brilliant. (Warning: do not watch movie version with Gillian Anderson. Run far, far away from said movie. Let us never speak of it again in fact.)

        • Anne says:

          I still need to read that one! And I’m cracking up at your movie warning, but that doesn’t mean I won’t take its advice very, very seriously. 🙂

        • Bronwyn Lea says:

          I tend to avoid movies with Gillian Anderson anyway because so many people say I look like her and seeing her on a screen makes me oddly self-conscious 🙂 But thanks for the warning, and more importantly for the recommendation! I’ll look out for that one.

  5. Anne says:

    I always read about the neatest books here at MMD. Thanks, Bronwyn. Your post resonates with me; I certainly wasn’t mature enough to take in the finer books I was introduced to in high school. Middlemarch? Read it but probably didn’t appreciate it much past the romance between Ladislaw and Dorothea. Tess of the D’Urbervilles? Read it…don’t remember much at all! Heck, I appreciated Anne’s House of Dreams more after the birth of a child; I imagine I would appreciate the literature you write about better at this age!

  6. alyssaz says:

    I agree with a lot of the other commenters: I need to find Booked! I do enjoy classics, but.if someone isnt helping me along (like in a class setting) I feel like I miss so much.

  7. Having only read one Russian classic, I suggested to my book club we read The Brothers Karamozov. I very much enjoyed it. Still need to move beyond two Russian novels, though!

    Madame Bovary I read with another book club, perhaps also my suggestion? I found it to be one of the most fascinating commentaries on life I’ve ever read. Again and again I was reminded of The Book of Ecclesiastes — where we draw our meaning, what is vanity and chasing after the wind. I still count it as the one work of fiction I’ve read that indirectly makes profound spiritual statements about the ways we define ourselves.

    From the children’s literature side, I recently re-read middle-grade novel A Wrinkle in Time. I’d read it in fifth grade and have since been convinced I was the only kid on planet earth not to love it. So happy I tried it a second time. Wrote about the experience earlier this month: http://carolinestarrrose.com/giving-wrinkle-time-second-chance/

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      I totally agree about Madame Bovary and Ecclesiastes! Every paragraph has something profound. As for A Wrinkle in Time, I can’t wait to read it with my kids. It seems a little darker than the Narnia series in some ways, so I’m going to wait a few years before reading it with them.

      • Molly says:

        How old are your kids? Keep in mind L’Engle was making a huge statement about governments in that book. Young kids may not be able to hold out long enough to get there.

        • Bronwyn Lea says:

          They are little: my eldest 6. We just finished Narnia, which she loved. I foresee we will read it again and again in years to come, each with another layer of meaning. I reckon we can read A Wrinkle in Time when she’s about 10 (then the “darkness” may not be so scary to her), and she can read it again a few years after that and understand the socio-political commentary that time round!

  8. Breanne says:

    The classics have been on my mind lately as I took (along with everyone else on Facebook) the BBC’s list of books. I was surprised by a number of things- some of the titles that were included on the list and the shocking number that I actually hadn’t read. I’ve watched more movie adaptations and I want to change that slowly.
    I think reading Booked would be a good place to start, for an intro of sorts. =)

  9. Tuija says:

    I was the girl with her nose in the books, too.
    Your story reminds me of what my father used to say when I was a teen. He didn’t ever restrict my reading, but he just said that he had understood and enjoyed certain classics in a completely different way when older, compared to his reading experiences as a teen – and that I, too, might get more out of reading those books if I waited a little…
    You can guess whether I got it at the time. 🙂 I did study literature at the university, but now, 20 years later, I probably ought to give myself another chance to understand Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      Ha, Tuija – I always thought when my parents said “read it when you’re a little older” that they meant the language would be too difficult, or the subject matter too mature. I didn’t realize that they meant “you’ll appreciate the genius once you’ve lived a little more” 🙂

  10. Ginger says:

    I’ve been thinking about this very thing this week, since Suzanne, over at Suzanne Shares talked about tackling Anna Karenina, inspired by Honey for a Woman’s Heart (sounds similar to Booked)!
    http://suzanneshares.com/2014/03/12/what-were-reading-wednesday-installment-1/

    I’ll admit I read a lot of these in high school and college, because I’m a Rule Follower, but with such a high volume of reading, I often wonder if I got as much out of many of them, not to mention there are just so many classics I was just never assigned that seem daunting. It makes me want to take on some more, and some of them again.

    I did and do love Jane Eyre, as I feel that was one of the first books I really claimed as my own, as a grown-up (sort of). I’ll never forget reading the huge, ugly red copy from the library one summer for summer reading. I always associate it with hot summer days, sprawled out on the couch and just eating up the story. I wonder if I’ll feel that way again, if I give them the chance.

    One other tip… do you know about Daily Lit? It’s an email service that sends classic books in 15 minute-per-day increments (or more, if you choose). A great way to slog through some of those worth reading, but intimidating tomes.

    Also, Bartleby has the list of Harvard Classics and links to free copies: http://www.bartleby.com/hc/

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      Great suggestions – thank you! Jane Eyre was one of the chapters covered in booked, and it piqued my curiosity to read it and persevere beyond the first chapter!

      Signing up for Daily Lit….

  11. Much respect for finishing Brothers K. 🙂 Especially after reading Yancey’s Soul Survivor (have you read it?), I want to read and like Tolstoy/Dostoyevsky, but have yet to make attempts since college. Maybe I should give myself a second chance :).
    As far as classics go, I love Austen, the Brontes, some Dickens, and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      I think it is true that many classics are easier to appreciate as an adult. It makes me wonder about the wisdom of making 14-year olds read things, then. I suppose high school is our last opportunity to expose our culture en masse to certain types of literature, but there is some sadness that many (like me!) weren’t quite ready to appreciate them and dismissed them. I am so glad to have had this second awakening.

  12. Courtney says:

    I love seeing this! I’ve loved the classics ever since I was a kid (starting with shorter children’s versions of The Secret Garden and Black Beauty). I came across Little Women when I was in the 5th grade, and I think that’s the book that really cemented a love of classics for me. I devoured everything I read in my high school English classes (I was one of those kids who actually read everything we were assigned), and then I majored in English lit. in college.

    I also understand where you’re coming from about not wanting to “ruin” the books, in a way, by analyzing them. In college I had to take a “Major Author” class, and had the chance to take Jane Austen, whom I adore. I ended up opting for a different author, though, because I felt like I loved Jane Austen too much to analyze her books to death. It worked out because through the class I ended up taking instead I realized I did not care one jot for Virginia Woolf (her essays are good, her novels are boring are confusing). I also don’t particularly care for Russian classics (Crime and Punishment was almost the death of me!) or English authors like James Joyce.

    Since you like Jane Austen, my recommendations would be the novels by the Bronte sisters, or novels by Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, etc.) I also really enjoy Ann Radliffe’s novels, which are the type of books Jane Austen mocked with Northanger Abbey (but also enjoyed herself). I hope you keep finding classics you enjoy. One of the best things about them is there are so many to choose from, so there’s something to suit everyone’s tastes. 🙂 Have fun!

  13. Jennifer H says:

    I agree with you about reading for the sake of reading vs. reading for a grade. My example of this is my senior year of high school. I wasn’t able to stay in AP English with my friends because the two electives I wanted were the same periods as AP English. But I had Honors English with the same teacher and whenever I saw a book my best friend was reading that looked interesting, I would ask my teacher if I could read it for “extra credit”. But I would really only read it and never actually write the essay she wanted for extra credit. I didn’t need the extra credit anyway…I already had an “A”. The Mayor of Casterbridge is one of the books I remember reading and I loved it.

    I think “classics” are just like any literature though. Some people are going to like some classics, but no one will like them all. Read the book jacket or review, just like you would when deciding if you want to read a modern book, and read what sounds interesting.

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      That’s good advice, Jennifer, thank you…. It is important to remember (as with movies) that just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean it will be my favorite 🙂

  14. There are so many classics that I didn’t like because I felt like they were forced upon me in school! Discussing and analyzing and writing about these books took away all the joy of reading. I think I should try to read some of those books again, like My Antonia or To Kill a Mockingbird.

  15. As a high school English teacher, I *love* this post. Sometimes I get depressed when my students are all “meh” about the books we read. I have to remind myself that just maybe a seed is being planted, and they’ll choose to go back to the book later and get something very meaningful out of it.

    And as someone who routinely re-read the classics for her job (I’ve read “Macbeth” at least twenty times), I can vouch for the fact that the same book is very different at different stages in life. There’s always something new to learn.

    Happy reading!

  16. Meredith says:

    “The idea that fiction could be deeply uncomfortable or even outright unpleasant, and yet still be excellent and worth my time, was a new thought.”

    Yes!! Well, said, and so true. I have enjoyed revisiting and discovery the classics for the past several years now, it’s refreshing and astounding all at the same time 🙂

  17. Molly says:

    Since we are on the topic of classics, I need to make an admission. I have tried many classics on my own, and ended up abandoning and/or hating quite a few of them. Hunchback of Notre Dame, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tale of Two Cities, Lord of the Flies. Maybe even as an adult I need to read these in a class to really understand what is going on. I really want to tackle Don Quiote, but I’m afraid I’ll end up hating it. Last of the Mohicans was my own fault.

    • Bronwyn Lea says:

      Strangely enough, Lord of the Flies was one of the few I read in high school which I remember resonating with. Perhaps I had seen enough of peer pressure and bullying to see how things could go that way. To this day, conches make me shiver. I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin two years ago – it took a lot of perseverance to get through the way the language was written, but within 50 pages it had gone from annoying to endearing and I learned a LOT from it. I 100% agree with you that I sometimes feel like I’d like to take adult literature classes to really understand. Reading Booked made me wish I’d had Prior as a teacher in college: maybe my experience would have been different? Maybe not: I was still 17 at the time and Clueless In All The Important Ways.

      I’d be curious to hear if you tackle Don Quixote, and whether you like it!

  18. Amy Caroline says:

    Wonderful! I adore the classics and was an English Lit major, lol. It was funny because I would look forward to school breaks so I could finally read for fun! I recall that some classes could be pure torture and it really depended on the instructor.

    Anyway, I think that the classics should be visited often throughout life. I had on professor who said we all have a book. That one book we reread almost every year or two and how it changes for you as your life changes. It brings new meaning and deeper insight. For me that is Jane Eyre. For her it was Madame Bovary.

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  20. I was an English major, but didn’t finish all those classics in high school or even college. But I’ve found that CHOOSING to read something as an adult gives me an entirely different perspective than feeling like I was forced to read something at someone else’s pace. Catcher in the Rye? Still not my thing. To Kill a Mockingbird? LOVED. Lord of the Flies? Glad I read it. Brave New World? Whoah. I can see where that author is coming from, but I think you can be transformed by modern fiction, too. 🙂 Like A Prayer for Owen Meany.

    • Anne says:

      I love that you reference A Prayer for Owen Meany, because that was on my short list for literary matchmaking today, and I was recommending it to readers who loved To Kill a Mockingbird and Possession, which is a modern classic in my book.

  21. Anna says:

    There are many classics which I enjoy, but others I dislike. And of course, some I simply haven’t made it through. There are times when I need to be in the right headspace for the material.

    I don’t particularly like Frankenstein, though it is an important work. I read it on my own as a teenager, and then in an English class in first-year university. I still don’t like it.

    On the other hand, I love books like Persuasion, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and A Tale of Two Cities. I also have a number of classics on my shelf that I have bought but have yet to finish reading. The Brothers Karamazov is one of them. I started it when I was sixteen, and ten years later, still haven’t finished it, though I liked what of it I managed to get through. The nice thing is, when I’m in the mood for something along those lines, they are right there, waiting for me.

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