I have a confession to make. I never made it past page 50 of Madame Bovary. I’ve also never made it beyond the first dozen or so pages of any James Joyce novel. I also found it a bit of an ordeal to get through some of Jane Austen’s and Charles Dickens’ novels, often skimming over the ‘dull’ parts.
On the other hand, some of my favourite books of all time are literary classics, such as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Turn of The Screw, Wuthering Heights, Jayne Eyre, The Haunted Hotel, 1984, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Shakespeare’s plays and A C Doyle’s tales about Sherlock Holmes, to name a few.
I have heard a few people say recently that they couldn’t stand Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, or Shelley’s Frankenstein, both of which are books I thoroughly enjoyed.
What does this mean? What is great ‘Literature’, and is it wrong not to like it? If you do enjoy literary classics, does that make you a literary snob?
Literary classics receive their status for saying something important, for providing insight or commentary on the human condition, or for challenging the reader in some way. Sometimes classics are considered so for being exceptionally well written, or being an example of a revolutionary new style of writing, but for the most part it is because they contain something timeless that remains relevant throughout the ages. For this reason the classics are a treasure trove of ‘quotable quotes’ that are repeated over and over and remain as true today as when they were written.
This does not mean that you are going to like all of them. You may absolutely love some of them. You may be able to appreciate others without particularly enjoying the novel. Or in some cases, such as myself with Madame Bovary, it is also perfectly fine to admit that you just don’t ‘get it’. Why make reading a chore when there are so many other wonderful books out there to choose from?
Does this relegate all modern genre novels to the realm of mindless trash?
Absolutely not. There are some wonderful, highly underrated genre novels out there which are as beautifully written, richly nuanced and meaningful as many of the great classics.
Even if a novel does not contain some deep and meaningful universal truth, does that make it a waste of time? Not in the slightest. We read for many reasons, to learn, to broaden our horizons, to live vicariously through a character, to experience adventure and embrace exciting situations, or for pure joy. No matter what kind of book it may be, reading any book leaves us with a greater understanding of the world around us.