I don’t read Penguin classics for hipster cred

BenethomEver since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by dead people.

Before you close your browser and back away slowly, let me assure you, this fascination did not entail any disturbing or anti-social behaviours.  It was about discovering the marks human beings leave on this world.  History, basically.   At school, I loved learning about the dead, and the more doomed they were – the better.  I could deal with tragedy, because the people we heard about didn’t seem real.  Rationally speaking, I knew they existed.  But like Hollywood celebrities and outer space – they felt very far away. A tiny part of me suspected it was all made up.

So what has this got to do with reading?

As a book-lover and a history nerd, picking up an old novel unites two of my favourite pursuits.  It also gives me the chance to see historical people as human beings, rather than characters.   They become people who could exist today, who could drive a car, fight over the TV remote and check Facebook in bed (terrible habit of mine, must stop).  If you can get past the language, there’s a lot to relate to.  It’s strangely comforting to think human beings haven’t really changed that much, that sarcasm, name-dropping and back-handed compliments survived the 1700s.

Last week, I decided to soothe my end of semester woes with an old standby – Pride and Prejudice.  I assume I don’t have to tell you who wrote that.  If you pick it up, some of the story will feel rather alien.  You might find yourself reading the same sentence three or four times.  But it won’t be irrelevant.  It’s about having an embarrassing mother.  Looking our for your sister.  Being a little bit too smart for your own good.  Dodging fake friends.  Growing up.  Most of all, it’s Austen sharing parts of her life with you – and I laugh and smile and cringe along with her every time.

So, maybe you’re a classics fan.  Maybe you’re not.  Maybe you like to display a stack classic novels on your coffee-table and post the pictures on Instagram.  If you’re loving them – good stuff.  If you’d like to love them, or at least have something intelligent to say about your coffee-table – don’t give up until you’ve had a proper go.

While I don’t pretend to be the authority on classic readings, here are my top three tips:

1. Watch a film/BBC mini-series version

‘Off with her head!’ I hear all the purists cry.  Well, screw them I say.  There’s really no shame in introducing yourself gently.  Just do a little internet research first.  There’s often a lot to chose from and some of them get weird very quickly.

2. Pick up a story you would ordinarily read

While classic novels seem nice and uniform in Penguin orange, they are not all the same.  They are not part of the same series.  Liking a couple of books on the classics list does not mean you will like all, or even most of them.  Therefore choose a classic in the same way you would usually choose a book.  Read the blurb.  Think, is this a story that interests me?  Don’t plough through a novel that confounds you from page one.

3. Choose an annotated edition

Many publishers have editions with a forward, character lists and annotations.  Don’t look at the forward until you’ve finished reading (spoilers and academic observations you won’t care about if you don’t know the story).  However, a character list and endnotes are always helpful when you encounter a word or a name you don’t understand.

Most of all, don’t read them just for the sake of it.  If the book’s not for you – it’s not for you.  Put something else on your coffee-table.

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