We all know what books are considered “The Classics”. Books that were written two hundred years ago, books we’re forced to read in school (though that trend seems to be changing for the better), books that are written in a language so archaic to us now that it seems like we’re actually reading a book in a foreign language.
The thing is, I know these books are probably good in the grand sense of the word. Obviously if they’ve won awards and have lasted this long, there must be something good about them. But if I haven’t read them at this point in my life (re: in school), then I probably will never read them. Let’s talk about a few, shall we?
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
Realistically, I’ll probably never read ANY John Steinbeck novels, but this one in particular would probably collect the most dust on my non-existent John Steinbeck shelf. First off, it sounds rather depressing: two migrant field workers during the Great Depression – “George Milton, an intelligent but uneducated man, and Lennie Small, a man of large stature and great strength but limited mental abilities” (Wikipedia). Lennie likes to touch soft things like rabbits on the farm, and of course gets accused of rape when touching a woman’s soft dress. And then he accidently kills a dog by stroking it too hard. I’m sorry, I just can’t read this book. Because poor Lennie gets shot in the head by George “out of love”. Gaaaahhh….no. Not for me.
A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
People are amazed that I’ve gone 33 years without reading this book. Seriously, they look at me the same way I look at people who tell me they haven’t read the Harry Potter series. Of course the people who are amazed are usually people over the age of 50 who were required to read A Tale of Two Cities in school. Of course I know the first line of the book: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. I know the “two cities” refer to London and Paris and that it takes place before and during the French Revolution. It’s also the BEST-SELLING BOOK OF ALL-TIME. I tried reading the “plot” on Wikipedia, and even that lost my interest. Call me a product of my generation, but I’m much more interested in the adventures of witches and wizards.
The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
Surprised? You should be. I mean, this is a story about swashbuckling and seduction and jewelry and beheadings! This book should be awesome! Well, I’m sure it is. But you know what? It’s like 800 pages long. And yes, I realize that Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix has 870 pages. But that’s Harry Potter. It’s not filled with French words and names that I don’t understand. I’m a reader, like some of you, who has gotten rather lazy with reading and simply wants instant gratification. I don’t want to have to read the same sentence twelve times because I don’t understand what the hell they’re saying. I can read a book like Order of the Phoenix in a week. I’m pretty sure it would take me months to read The Three Musketeers only because I would struggle with the language. Does that make me stupid? To snobby readers, perhaps. But I’m just telling it like it is.
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Speaking of long novels, let’s talk about this one, which clocks in at around 1,088 pages. We’re talking 1,088 pages of dystopian government imagery. Now, I’m all for dystopian stories. They’re an interesting look at what could happen if we’re not careful. But this one, which focuses on government and basically “what would happen if the mythological Atlas refused to continue to hold up the world” (wiki). Metaphorically speaking, of course. In other metaphorical words, what would happen if I opened the book and fell asleep. Yeah, it sounds boring. It’s probably interesting, I’m sure, to some people. But it’s probably one of those books you have to be in the right mood for, and unfortunately I don’t think my mood will ever warrant a night in with Atlas Shrugged.
War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
In 2009, Newsweek magazine ranked War and Peace number ONE in its list of Top 100 Books. And to that I ask, “WHAT ARE YOU COMPARING IT TO???” Seriously, this thing reads like a textbook. Trust me. I’ve tried. Tolstoy once said, according to the always reliable Wikipedia, that the book was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle.” Even Tolstoy himself didn’t know what the hell he was writing. In a tiny little nutshell, he was writing about the French invasion of Russia and the surrounding events. There are lots of characters in the book with notoriously long Russian names that you can’t remember, let alone pronounce, and those characters and surrounding events take up 1,440 pages. Which yes, I know, is like reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back-to-back. But again, that’s Harry Potter. It has witches and wizards and wands and wonderfullness. War and Peace is simply war…peace…Russia…long names.
Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes
If you were to Google the 100 Best Books of All Time, you would find this one at the top, as it’s been cited as the “best literary work ever written”. The plot, I admit, sounds fun. This guy named Alonso Quijano apparently spends all his time reading books about chivalry. He thinks it’s pretty cool. He then decides to try bring chivalry back by calling himself Don Quixote and going on all sorts of crazy adventures with his Squire, Sancho. Sounds good, right? Well, the crappy thing? It was written in 1605. I’m not going to understand a single word of it. Cliff’s Notes, anyone?
There are lots of “classics” out there that I could write about, but this post would end up being longer than War and Peace. If I were to go down the list of the 100 Best Books of All Time by the Modern Library, I’ve read five of them. FIVE. Four of them were for school: Old Man and the Sea, The Brothers Karamosov, A Doll’s House, and Hamlet. One book I read on my own. That book? Pippi Longstocking.
This doesn’t mean that I haven’t read any “good” books. I just think it means that the people making these so-called “Best Of” lists are of a different generation. Who knows what will make up these lists twenty years down the road. Will we see Harry Potter? Will we see anything by J.R.R. Tolkien? Neil Gaimon? Does The Hunger Games have lasting power the same way A Tale of Two Cities does?
Time will tell, I suppose. Until then, I’ll read the books I want to read. They can make all the lists they want, but only I can say what I consider to be “The Best”.