Book Sins – The Classics We Just Couldn’t Swallow

Let’s face it, from time to time we’re all guilty of a little bookish name-dropping; it shoots our street-cred from zero to hero and makes us feel just a little bit smarter than the average. So whether it’s Chaucer, Milton or Dostoevski, the sheer amount of time and effort put into reading these monster works is worth its own weight in bragging rights. But what about the flip side? Classics are rightly dubbed for a reason, generally because they were doing something different and dynamic at a time when different and dynamic was stringently not the norm. From the Brontë sisters writing in an age where literature ‘was not the concern of woman,’ to Orwell imagining a totalitarian future which, in some respects, was not far wrong, classical works tested and redefined the boundaries of what Literature could do. But this did not always make them approachable or enjoyable, especially to a modern, twenty-first century reader, who has very clear ideas on how a story should be told.

Therefore, for every classic that is relished and adored, there will also invariably be: one that is read only for the simple act of finishing it; one that will never be approached at all; and one which is begun with the best intentions, but given up half way through. This last is the case I particularly want to focus on: the true, eternal book sin, and ask – what, if any, were the classics you gave up on? And why did you give up on them?

For me, I’ve only ever given up on two: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley. And you couldn’t pay me enough money in the world to pick either of them up and attempt them again.

Of the two, I got further with Moby Dick: somewhere close to three-hundred pages in the edition I owned (and expediently got rid of). With Shirley I gave up after the sixth chapter. Pathetic, I know, but I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’re not enjoying reading something, and not getting anything out of it either, then you’re better off giving it up and moving onto something else. The sprawling, esoteric Shirley definately fell into this category, which was a shame considering I’d read and adored many other Brontë works – most recently Anne’s stunning The Tennant of Wildfell Hashirleyll. 

Knowing that Shirley was an historical work, I went in with my eyes open, accepting that there would be references I did not understand and events which, in all likelihood, would fly straight over my head. I was prepared. What I was not prepared for, however, were the long, didactic passages on religious curacy, nationalism and politics which saturate the beginning part of the novel (I can’t comment on the latter) and are practically indecipherable to anyone lacking a French history degree. Furthermore, the sheer amount of Mr’s introduced in the first six chapters is nothing short of phenomenal. And even given their long – very long – passages of biographical description, I still struggled to remember who was who, never mind who believed what. I felt drowned in an overabundance of meaningless information until I failed to take any of it in at all.

Yet the very worst feature of this book, for me, definitely had to be the authorial intrusions, which sprang up without apparent rhyme or reason and digressed so far from the action of the story that it was like reading an entirely different work for ten pages. They were unnecessary and distracting, and Charlotte should have trusted that her work was strong enough without them. It would have been better off without them at least, because on page 54 I finally met the straw which broke the camel’s back. After bringing Hortense Moore onto the scene, Charlotte’s authorial voice intrudes to say: ‘I must describe her before I go any further.’ And I silently begged her please, please don’t. Following a brief stint of description, Charlotte intrudes once more to superiorly suggest: ‘You will think I have described a remarkable slattern, reader – not at all,’ and, after suffering through too much of this already, this reader decided it was high time to check out and read some Agatha Christie instead.

article-2003632-0c90802a00000578-22_233x351With Moby Dick, conversely, I actually really enjoyed the first hundred pages or so, and part of the reason why I stuck with it for so long after was that I hoped it would pick up the same sense of excitement and intrigue again. It did not. As the novel opens, Melville’s narrator is instantly compelling – erratic and highly intelligent, he finds himself in a fey humour and decides to get to sea as quickly as possible on any ship that will have him. Setting out, he encounters strange people and stranger situations until, at great length, (somewhere around the 150-200 page mark) he finally steps on board the Pequod. A whaling ship captained by the monomaniacal Ahab, who is on a revenge mission to kill the notorious white-whale which bit off half of his leg. How can this novel possibly fail to be exciting?

I don’t know, but it does. With the transition from land to sea there seems to come another transition in the way the book is written, and the chunky, philosophizing paragraphs which, bearably, have been a fixture from the beginning now come to dominate, soaking up whole chapters and sections of the book, again, for no apparent reason. At one point, if I remember correctly, Melville’s narrator even philosophizes extendedly on the beauty and function of the ship’s steering wheel, which, you know, is fine, but I’d like to know what life was like on a whaling ship in the middle of the 1800s. In addition, Moby Dick could be marketed as a complete anatomy of whales because, between endless philosophizing chapters, we’re also treated to a discursive lecture on the sea’s largest mammal; information which, in any other writer’s hands, would probably be interesting but (sorry) not in Melville’s. All of this bloat took me so far away from the story that I registered barely anything about Ahab and his deranged quest at all. When the book finally DID get back around to the main action by way of a brutal and vividly described whale harpooning (not Moby Dick), I was forced to acknowledge defeat, deciding once and for all that this novel was not for me. By this point, it was a bare choice between giving up or losing my love for literature anyway, because my frustration at the novel had brought me that low.

So, those are my reasons for the two classics I just couldn’t swallow. I’m sorry for them, but at the same time I’m not, because my disliking either of these works ultimately takes nothing away from the fact that Shirley and Moby Dick remain classics, that they were still doing something different and dynamic at the time that they were written, and that they rise so far above one person’s opinion of them anyway. That is something this post aims to stress, despite its title: that it’s okay to read a book and hate it; even a book so coveted and respected as a classic. It’s natural, in fact, the instinct of a well-developed, highly individualistic mind, as the worst thing literature can possibly do is produce no reaction at all.

Admittedly, classics aren’t for everyone, and none of their writers ever originally sat down to instil themselves into ‘the Canon’ which, two-hundred years later, book lovers everywhere would make aspirations to read. [If anyone ever has read the entire classics list then I fall at your feet unworthy because you are something else]. For the most part, however, every classic that we do pick up and sample is an enrichment experience, leaving us with something vital to take away. This is true even of the ones we gave up on … so bare your soul and confess your ‘sins.’ What were the classics you tried and failed to tame?

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