If you’ve ever wanted to read the classics, if you’ve ever been intimidated-or embarrassed-by how few of the books on the “100 Best Books” lists you’ve actually read, here’s an easy and painless way to increase your “read that” list.
I began doing this after seeing one of those 100 Best Books lists and being shocked at how few classic literature titles I (an English major!) had read; now when I see a list, I’m able to say I’ve read more than half the books listed. Here’s how I did it:
Here are some “rules” for reading the classics, things that will help you succeed, and even enjoy the process.
The first rule is to commit to read one classic a year.
It all boils down to making a simple commitment: read just one classic a year. Just one book a year. With this as your goal, you can choose carefully which book you will read, and take your time reading it.
The second rule is you don’t have to finish every book you start, although you do need to give it a good effort.
Not every book you pick up is going to be for you. There’s nothing wrong with realizing this and moving on to something that’s more palatable. I’ve put several books back on the shelves, among them “Don Quixote,” “Tess of the d’Urbervilles,” and “The Pickwick Papers.”
If you do abandon a book, however, you have to pick a new one. That’s where rule three helps.
The third rule is to start reading your classic early in the year.
Starting early gives you plenty of time to read your book without feeling pressured, and time to choose another book in case you just aren’t able to get through your first choice. When you don’t feel pressured to read, you can relax and enjoy what you’re reading.
The fourth rule is that it’s okay to read more than one book by the same author.
As you work your way through the classics, you’re likely going to find an author or two you really like, and that’s great. This happened to me when I read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. I loved that book, and a year or so later when I was looking for another book, I went back to him and chose The Three Musketeers.
This process also helped me rediscover the joy of Jane Austen. I’ve since read all of her books, and I re-read them regularly. Reading more than one classic by the same author is fine, as long as you continue to experiment with other authors as well.
In case you still feel a little apprehensive about attempting to read a classic, here are a couple hints that might make it easier for you.
Read a book that’s been made into a movie: watching the movie might help you understand what’s going on in the book-especially it it’s a foreign novel or Shakespeare, with language that’s a little unfamiliar. There have been plenty of adaptations of classic novels, so you should be able to find a movie you like.
I’ve had problems reading Charles Dickens, but for Christmas 2011, picked up A Christmas Carol, figuring having seen untold movie and television versions of this classic might make it easier. I was thrilled to find out it’s really quite short, and read through it easily and actually enjoyed it.
Use Cliffs Notes (available at bookstores and libraries), and/or online study guides. Anything that will help you understand what you’re reading will help you stay with it.
If you use this plan to read the classics, I think you’ll find some new favorite authors and books, and before you know it, you’ll be able to say you’ve read half (or more) of the books on a “best of” list as well.