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Reading the 'Classics'

vee_new
3 years ago

I was interested in Donna's comment in the September reading thread that she had never read anything by Jane Austen.

Here in England virtually every school-pupil would have been made to read at least something by JA and/or one of the Bronté's and maybe Dickens. A 'set book' was required reading in each year of English class at Secondary school, plus a Shakespeare play and a selection of poetry.

These choices, often based on what was available in the English department's 'cupboard' or what was on the syllabus of the examination board either gave students a love of quality books and reading . . . or put them off for life.

I wonder did your experience of required reading give you a love of classic literature, or had the opposite effect?

nb I remember someone at RP saying they all had to read 'Gone With the Wind' at school which would not have counted as either 'classic' or 'literature' over here.

Comments (30)

  • colleenoz
    3 years ago

    I received a copy of Sense and Sensibility for my 9th birthday which I didn’t care for at all. I had read Black Beauty and The Prince and the Pauper when I was younger; I liked Black Beauty but not so much The Prince and the Pauper, I suspect because I didn’t know enough about older times to appreciate the context.

    When I was in high school I studied a lot about history and read a lot of historical novels, which led to older, more classic books- Jane Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Louisa Alcott, Mark Twain etc, and even some Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, which I still reread from time to time with much enjoyment. I also read books like Ben Hur and Little Lord Fauntleroy to see what they were about, and even dipped into Dostoyevsky for the same reason, but I found Tolstoy too ponderous to persist with.

    As an adult I’ve read other classics with varying enjoyment- I liked the story of Les Miserables but it was a bit of a slog, didn’t like Moby Dick at all what with Melville’s constant waffling on with misinformation about whales, couldn’t finish Humphrey Clinker as the protagonist just ended up in the same situation in different places time after time (I know a lot of real people do the same, but it got boring 🙄).

    I do think people should be encouraged to read the classics and even the Bible (don’t have to believe it, just read it), because so much in them has given rise to common sayings and other usages of language which I’d say 90% or even more of people these days have no understanding of as they have no familiarity with the source.

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  • annpanagain
    3 years ago

    I notice that a number of questions on TV quiz shows (I watch a lot in the afternoon) are about Norse, Greek and Roman myths. I can answer quite well as we read these stories as children.

    Young contestants know the answers from viewing TV shows!

    I enjoy the 19thC writers but stumble sometimes when the sense of words has changed. As in a "stout child" being healthy rather than fat. I still can't quite understand Jane Austen's use of "genius". As in "What is his genius? Does it mean wanting to know his interests?

    vee_new thanked annpanagain
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  • sheri_z6
    3 years ago

    I took a British literature class in high school and remember reading the Canterbury Tales, various Shakespeare plays, Bronte, and Thomas Hardy, but I've forgotten the rest. As a young teen I had my Mom's copy of Jane Eyre and all the Louisa May Alcott books, and I read and re-read those to pieces. I was a bit flummoxed by Wuthering Heights as I found both Heathcliff and Cathy to be endlessly annoying while my friends thought they were so romantic. I didn't read Jane Austen until I was in my twenties, and I fell in love. The movie and miniseries adaptations that came along later certainly helped cement that (Emma Thompson is brilliant, but -- sigh -- Colin Firth, anyone?).

    One of my "classics" reading gaps is Dickens. I've seen A Christmas Carol plenty of times, and I'm familiar with the plot lines and characters in many of his books, yet I've never read even one of them. If anyone can suggest a good place to start with him, I do feel a need to remedy this.

    As far as my experience with American literature in school, it was all dead white males who really didn't speak to anything a teenage girl might be interested in, and I didn't enjoy what I read in high school and college particularly much. I slogged through Faulker (high school) and Updike (college) and I loathed The Catcher in the Rye - I spent the entire book wishing I could slap some sense into the main character and this was when I was a teenager, not an adult. There were a few books in the mix that I did like, including The Sun Also Rises, but I can't think of any others.

    I've always been a voracious reader, so nothing I "had to" read put me off reading.

    vee_new thanked sheri_z6
  • msmeow
    3 years ago

    In addition to no Austen, I have also not read any Bronte. The little bit of Dickens I read made me say, “Bleh!” In school had to read Beowulf, at least some of the Canterbury Tales, and some Shakespeare. I liked Shakespeare once I got into the rhythm of it. I also had a class in Greek and Roman mythology, which I enjoyed a lot.

    I remember having to read Death of a Salesman, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and Streetcar Named Desire, and hated them all. :)

    Donna

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  • Carolyn Newlen
    3 years ago

    My mother was an elementary school teacher and had kept one of her college books that was an enormously thick children's literature text book ranging from nursery rhymes through to sample reads of various kinds of children's books. I read it in parts from a little girl. I memorized On Sherwood for one thing and used to march around the yard declaiming it. There was a section on myths and legends, giving me a love for Norse gods and King Arthur; and in the novels section there were parts from lots of good books, some of which were antiquated even to me in the 1940s. It had samples from Little Women and Tom Sawyer and others that made me want to read the books, I remember, as well as lots more.

    In high school, we had one semester of grammar and one of literature each year, and at the end of each lit book contained a novel and a Shakespeare play; e.g. 9th grade was Treasure Island and As You Like It. One year was A Tale of Two Cities and one of the plays was MacBeth.

    I majored in English Lit in college and so got many classics as required reading. One of Susan Hill's top forty favorite books is The Way We Were which bored me to tears.

    Sheri, I have read all of the Dickens novels and I think my favorite is Oliver Twist. Tale of Two Cities is outstanding and is completely different from his other writing.

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  • annpanagain
    3 years ago

    I remember reading A Tale of Two Cities at school when I was around 10 and enjoyed it, so it would be a good book for starting on Dickens.

  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Sheri. re Dickens I started with David Copperfield on the strength that my mother owned a fist edition (ie the first 'collected' work of DC as Dicken's work came out in monthly installments) Some of the characters have become very well-know but you can see the padding where he had to write a certain number of words to fill his monthly quota.

    A pity so many of his heroines were of the fair and feeble variety.

    When I was about 8/9 years old, my Mother realising belatedly that I was a slow, unwilling reader bought some very cheap 'classics' from, of all places, Woolworth, priced at half-a-crown.

    So I spent most of one Summer ploughing my way through Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Children of the New Forest and Midshipman Easy. I hardly understood most of them and am sure I never finished any.

    My Grandmother who worked in a US bookstore sent the What Katy Did series, which I didn't enjoy and Little Women which I re-read many times,

    As far as I know students/pupils of my generation didn't study American literature but my 15 year old neighbour tells me she is having to 'do' Of Mice and Men for GCSE English . . . so times they are a-changing.

    Carolyn, we did very little grammar at school although I'm sure it was on the syllabus. I think it was beyond the powers of our then English teacher! So most lessons must have been given over to 'books', poetry and composition writing . .. a good excuse for said teacher to get on with piles of marking while we were busy scribbling away.

  • sheri_z6
    3 years ago

    Carolyn, thank you for jogging my terrible memory -- I did read A Tale of Two Cities in high school. Relief! I'm not completely Dickens-free. However, as I read it over 40 years ago, it's time for another. I've put Oliver Twist and/or David Copperfield on my read-this-soon list.

    I thought of another classic that I loved as a child -- The Swiss Family Robinson. It was my Mom's book (Illustrated Junior Library, 1949 - I still have it) and it had gorgeous illustrations by Lynd Ward. Their tree house was my dream house for my entire childhood. I read it aloud to my kids when they were small and they loved it, too. However, we did notice that every time a new animal came on the scene, the father's first instinct was to shoot it, stuff it, and put it in their museum!

    Vee, having a first edition of a Dickens book is very cool.

    Donna, I remember struggling mightily with Shakespeare until we started reading it aloud in class. I can understand it when I hear it spoken, I have a very hard time just reading it.

  • annpanagain
    3 years ago

    I agree with Vee about learning grammar, I know it was taught in my UK schools but I was never able to grasp it well. I think it is taught in a better way in other countries.

    My family who were taught in Australia were discussing "the fairy e" recently and I had never heard of this. They assured me that this was a well-known concept where adding an "e" changes a word like "can" to cane".

    I am still finding things out! Only recently I discovered that "gala" is pronounced as "gayla" in the US! That was from watching the movie "Oceans 8". I am in a mood of watching movies and TV shows I don't watch normally, by way of a change. It must be because of Spring here! My jonquils are in bloom too!

  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago

    Annpan. We learn something new everyday. I have never heard of the 'fairy e' either. . . and just found out that the word jonquil is derived from the Latin joncus (rush) because of its rush-like leaves. I always think of them as daffodils! Enjoy the Spring sunshine; here we are into a rather 'early' Autumn.

  • Carolyn Newlen
    3 years ago

    My mother the teacher/grammarian taught us that adding the "e" to the end of a word made the word say it's name, e.g., your can and cane.

    Someone said something to my daughter about her good grammar, and she told them all it took was an elementary teacher for a grandmother and an English major for a mother; it's more "caught" than "taught." She said every time she hears someone say "different than," she can hear me in the background saying "one thing differs from another, not than it." Such a wretched childhood she had!

  • iamkathy
    3 years ago

    Around 1995 I decided I'd take on the task of reading as many "classics" as I could. One of the first was Great Expectations, as I'd only read A Tale of Two Cities and A Christmas Carol at that point. I was delighted and amazed to find out that this one as well as many other Dickens' stories were written in monthly installments. Just loved this story and it still remains in my top five list of "classics" to this day.

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  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago

    iamkathy, several years ago, here at RP some of us made a half-hearted plan to try and read one or two classic novels a year. I have attempted this with little success. The last one was The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. Like many of his books it was full of gloom and doom . . . but not nearly as bad as Jude the Obscure which just makes you want to go out and throw yourself under a bus . . .

  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago

    I suppose Henry James must be regarded as one of the main US writers of classic novels. I don't know how popular he was on your side of the Pond or if he was 'required reading' by students of English.

    Is he still read today? I can't think his work was ever as popular as that of Dickens over here.

    I was given a copy of John Banville's Mrs Osmund by a US cousin, a follow-on to Portrait of a Lady by James. As I had never read the 'Portrait . . .' I found this one difficult to follow, plus the language was so formal and often impenetrable, as I presume was James' writing.

  • friedag
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Vee, I was never 'required' to read Henry James in any of the literature classes I 'took' in school. That was probably because James was considered deadly, as in dull, by many (most?) readers of my day, including most of my teachers who probably dreaded trying to foist James's stuffed-shirt formality on students who wanted 'action' first and foremost

    I have meant to ask you: What is considered 'classic'-enough literature to be taught in UK schools? Does it have to be over a hundred years old?

    That used to be the general rule in U.S. schools -- since thrown into the wind by the introduction of 'instant classics'. Thus, when I was in school in the fifties and sixties, Huckleberry Finn was not yet a classic because it wasn't published until the mid-1880s, but by the mid-1960s Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four (published 1949) was already said to be a classic and was assigned to (inflicted on) captive student-readers all over the U.S. school system. One year I had to read 1984 for three different classes -- and they weren't all literature classes, either. It almost ruined Orwell for me (along with Animal Farm, the other Orwell darling of bandwagon-jumping teachers). However, I was lucky enough to discover on my own Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier and Homage to Catalonia. Orwell is one of my favorite writers now, but no thanks are due to my teachers!

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  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Frieda, I don't think the hundred year 'rule' applies over here although I remember our book of Modern Poetry ended with Thomas Hardy in 1917! It was either that or Narrative Verse . . . and there is only so much of the Ancient Mariner that anyone can stomach.

    I checked around as I'm so out of the loop with what kids/students are studying at 'exam level' these days.

    Many of the 'exam boards' (they publish and mark the papers that are taken at various schools . .. overseen by the Govt Ed people) seem to have very similar choices . . . 19th century, post 1914, drama/plays including Shakespeare and poetry.

    Below is a list of possible books/plays etc that seem popular choices . . . and they will be decided by the school staff . . . not the pupils.

    I noticed there is just P&P by Jane Austen which must gladden the heart of teenage boys and the only Bronté is Jane Eyre.


    A Reading List for Examination Classes

    ** I should add that GCSE is the cover-all name of the exams usually taken at the age of 15-16 years. Exams taken over the following two years are called A levels. They are used to decide which path the more 'academic' students will follow.


  • annpanagain
    3 years ago

    Classic books seem to be rated by content as well as age?

    I was startled to see a novel classified as "Historical Fiction" which was set in the 1940s which is In my lifetime. Ouch!!

    One of the critical comments on the book I am reading, set in 1950s England is that the US reader had to keep breaking off to check on brand names etc that were unfamiliar. When I read US books I tend to ignore unfamiliar terms as long as I get the gist of the meaning, rather than interrupt the flow. How do RP'ers manage?

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  • msmeow
    3 years ago

    Orwell...another author I haven't read. :)

    Donna

  • friedag
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Annpan, I'm trying to get used to reading 'historical novels' that are set during the Vietnam 'conflict' which to me was just a short while ago. I have also read historical fiction with 1980's and 1990's time frames, and at least one that took place in 2001.

    I am an inveterate note taker, so I seldom read anything without paper and pencil/pen handy. I jot my notes quickly about unfamiliar terms and most of the time I don't have to interrupt the flow. I wait until I've finished the story (or chapter if I can't wait until the end) to go on a marathon looking-up spree, which I love to do . . . 'the more notes the better' is my estimation of a really interesting book.

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  • Carolyn Newlen
    3 years ago

    Anna Karinina is the book that I was assigned to read in three different courses. I was definitely tired of her by the third go round. I've read some Henry James, only one as an assignment, and fortunately have blocked all of them from my memory.

  • friedag
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Vee, thanks for the link to the Reading List for GCSE. I didn't get a chance until now to compare it to current reading lists for U.S. students which I had to search out because I'm also 'out of the loop' since my sons graduated from high school fifteen and eighteen years ago. (I don't remember if they ever shared with me what they read at university.)

    The first thing I noticed that differs significantly from what I read, particularly in the sixties, is the number of plays UK pupils are expected to read. Besides Shakespeare (which my cohort read all the same ones as are on the UK list and maybe a couple of others), the only play on the UK list that I read as an assignment was Thornton Wilder's Our Town.

    Also, I suspect the poetry we read back then was probably a bit different from what you read. Our poetry studies were heavily gleaned from anthologies instead of the work of individual poets. As is said about anthologies: "Anthologizers anthologize other anthologies."

    vee_new thanked friedag
  • annpanagain
    3 years ago

    Friedag, what a lovely tongue-twister!

    I like to look things up too and find links to other sites can take you all over the place! Good when there is no interesting TV and no book beckons!

    As well as checking book references, I like to look up quiz answers I got wrong on the many TV shows I watch. Learn from your mistakes, I have been told!

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  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago

    katmarie, I also went to a Catholic school, mid-50's - '60's and have since realised that the 'chosen texts' were often works that had an RC slant. The most difficult eg was studying the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins for 'A level' English. His work is almost impossible to understand and written in a very ponderous meter, apparently based on writings by the Anglo-Saxons . . . make of that what you will. But he had been a Jesuit priest and was therefore considered 'suitable'.

    As for play-reading back in those days we did very little of it. Apart from Shakespeare which required much rote leaning; I still remember large chunks of The Merchant of Venice. We 'did' Everyman and Medieval Mystery Plays (again with a religious flavour) and as a unexpected sideline, Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral (definitely a theme here) It might seem surprising that no Irish writers were included but I think the vast majority were considered to have 'lost their Faith', or had none to start with or led wicked lives . . think Oscar Wilde or James Joyce . . . or that most feared breed of all the non-Catholic!


  • Carolyn Newlen
    3 years ago

    I had Our Town as a junior in high school (11th grade) and didn't like it. I'm sure it would be much more poignant to me now.

  • rouan
    3 years ago

    I had Our Town in a high school English class and remember being very depressed by it so never looked at it again.


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  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    A UK publishing house that has had a big hand in reintroducing interesting and/or fallen off the shelf classics is Virago started back in the '70's by a group of women intent on making fiction by women and therefore often dismissed by male publishers, more widely available.

    The books are generally more hard-hitting than those produced by Persephone Books and when they first came out they included quite a few US titles.

    Below is a list (rather long) of their re-publications. Interesting to go through it and see how many you may have read. 'though not necessarily as published and printed by Virago. I notice they have added many more 'popular' women authors to the list.


    Virago Modern Classics

  • friedag
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    Ah, yes, Virago publications: Recently, I was trying to think of the name of that endeavour, but then I forgot to look it up. I think it's funny how many times answers will come my way in a circular fashion a few days or weeks later! Thank you, Vee.


    I recognize many of the earlier-published titles from the 'Women's Studies Literature' classes I took in the 1970s and 1980s -- back when just about the only women represented in regular lit courses were Jane Austen and Charlotte and Emily Bronte (Anne Bronte was not yet 'worthy' of much mention) and, maybe, Harriet Beecher Stowe as the lone American woman author (L. M. Alcott's writing still was thought to be for female children, only).


    Still, even in studies devoted to women's writing, I only read about 10% of the first two hundred or so titles. Of the 500-plus books Virago has added since then, I have read a greater number but not more than 25% of the whole. That's a quick count, subject to change as I look at it more closely.


    You mentioned that the Virago titles tend to be more 'hard-hitting' than the Persephone ones. Something that struck me is how many are stories of 'quiet desperation' which is the nickname someone of my cohort gave this type of book. They were probably thinking of the lyrics from the Pink Floyd song 'Time':


    Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time.

    Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines

    Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way

    The time is gone, the song is over,

    Thought I'd something more to say. -- Roger Waters, lyricist, Pink Floyd (band), 1973 ('Dark Side of the Moon')

    (Waters, possibly either intentionally or subconciously, lifted the phrase 'quiet desperation' from Henry David Thoreau.)


    Was Waters 'spot-on' about the English, in general, and particularly about many English female writers?

  • vee_new
    Original Author
    3 years ago

    Although never having been a 'pop' fan, I had heard of Pink Floyd but had to look up Roger Waters . . .isn't it nice when you find a balding grey-haired, complete with ponytailed 'rocker' who is even older than me!

    Is he familiar with Thoreau? Who can say anymore than his possible interest in female English writers . . . probably slight.

    More interesting to me is how many of this 'rock' generation were well-educated often at public/private schools (same thing over here) Despised their backgrounds and Daddy's money, became ardent socialists/anti capitalists, made millions, bought huge estates in the country . . . then sent their kids to the same private schools and live the lives of 'country gentlemen!

    Quiet desperation when thinking of women's lives up to the '70's but I feel women have become more assertive, able to earn their own money and 'get by' without a man to guide the 'little woman' . . . which is just how the women at the forefront of Virago would want it.

  • friedag
    3 years ago
    last modified: 3 years ago

    It could be true that Roger Waters had little or no interest in either male American or female (or male) English writers, but if he didn't, he had an uncanny knack for plucking literary cultural allusions from the air to incorporate into his lyrics. I think many of his word choices are quite evocative.-- but perhaps only of his time and place . . . I don't know.

    Back to the Virago list: I am gratified to see most of DduM's work there, and not just Rebecca. :-)

    I read my first Celia Fremlin book (mystery?/psychological thriller?), The Trouble Makers, a few months ago. It isn't the one on the Virago list, but it is a different one that was published in 1963. What a strange story! It starts out very realistically, set in one of the leafier parts of London, with some of the best internal dialogue of an 'ordinary' wife/mother I've read in a long time -- but it's not especially intended to be funny although sometimes it is. I think I would call it a novel of 'quiet desperation'.

    vee_new thanked friedag
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