It’s a sad fact that for most people today, classic English literature is the reading equivalent of eating your vegetables. It shouldn’t be this way, but years of bored English teachers droning on have completely ruined some amazing works for generations of readers. Luckily, I never read, or even payed attention to the readings during most of my school career. I know, I was a teacher’s dream. I was spared, and when I entered college, I did so with no preconceived notions of many works. I had heard the titles, knew of the authors, but I didn’t have a bad taste in my mouth, which would have stopped me from enjoying these great works. I started to read them on my own, separate from my school work. A great feast began.
Now some of you have read Great Expectations, Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Robinson Crusoe and the like, but you didn’t think much of them. It’s probably due to your mindset when you read them. I rarely enjoy a book when it’s assigned to me. It’s a weird quirk, and I think many of you share this foible. Even if a friend hands me a book and tells me I should read it, it becomes an assignment in my mind. Avoid this feeling. Do some research on your own. Find some cultural touchstones, and go read them in your on way and in your own time. I guess that sounds a bit like an assignment. Do it anyway.
You may still disagree with me, asking why these books from the past really matter anymore. Is it because there’s some weird fetishism within the English teacher community? No, it’s because these works contain universal human truths. Sure, You’re probably not an English lord, but you’ve probably felt like you’re meant for better than the job you’re currently working, or have fallen in love with someone you know wants nothing to do with you. That’s why these stories are often watered down for modern audiences. From Clueless, to Bridget Jones’s Diary, you know these stories, even if you don’t realize it. Time to understand the source of all those tropes and archetypes, so you can impress people at those soirees you’re always going to.
I’ll finish up by sharing a page from Great Expectations. I’m in the middle of the story, and I thought this beautiful writing would resonate with some.
‘Do you want to be a gentleman, to spite her or to gain her over?’ Biddy quietly asked me, after a pause.
‘I don’t know,’ I moodily answered.
‘Because, if it is to spite her,’ Biddy pursued, ‘I should think – but you know best – that might be better and more independently done by caring nothing for her words. And if it is to gain her over, I should think – but you know best – she was not worth gaining over.’
Exactly what I myself had thought, many times. Exactly what was perfectly manifest to me at the moment. But how could I, a poor dazed village lad, avoid that wonderful inconsistency into which the best and wisest of men fall every day?
‘It may be all quite true,’ said I to Biddy, ‘but I admire her dreadfully.’
In short, I turned over on my face when I came to that, and got a good grasp on the hair on each side of my head, and wrenched it well. All the while knowing the madness of my heart to be so very mad and misplaced, that I was quite conscious it would have served my face right, if I had lifted it up by my hair, and knocked it against the pebbles as a punishment for belonging to such an idiot.
– Charles Dickens, Great Expectations