Not-so-classic Classics

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Not-so-classic Classics

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Aug 5, 2008, 11:37 pm

We all love the classics, but we've all been there: Reading a novel that is hailed as a founder of an idea, a social criticism that changed history, a story that lives on in the hearts of those who read it...

But it sucks.

You can't get past the 67th page, and all you can focus on is how much you hate reading it and why you don't see in it what everyone around you does.

Which book was it for you?

Aug 6, 2008, 2:04 am

The bridge of San Luis Rey. It's almost ten years ago and I still feel disgusted.

Aug 6, 2008, 2:34 pm

Oct 23, 2008, 12:59 pm

Anything by Stendhal.

Dec 31, 2009, 8:05 pm

I feel this way about a lot of highly acclaimed contemporary fiction (which is not to say that I don't consider some modern works classics) . In terms of the classics, even if a book is hard-going, obscure or, let's be honest, a bit long-winded I have always found something compelling in it, something to admire. Like a good old-fashioned cliche, I believe classic literature is classic for a reason!

Jan 21, 2010, 12:10 pm

For me it's Henry James. I get why he's so important in the development of the narrative form, etc., but good god, man, spit it out! Also, the novels of D.H. Lawrence. His short stories and poems are OK, but those novels . . . do we like ourselves much?

Jan 22, 2010, 3:48 pm

You've said it! Finally, someone else finds Henry James longwinded! I usually finish any book I start, no matter how appalling the book is. Only twice in my life have I failed to do so and both of those books were by Henry James. I've sworn never to read anything else by him ever since.

Edited: Jan 25, 2010, 12:26 pm

#7> LOL! Unhappily for me, I had to read several Henry James novels in my very first literature class in grad school. I had just begun work for my MA in Creative Writing/English Lit at San Francisco State. The course was called "Highbrows and Lowbrows." The "highbrows" were Henry James and Edith Wharton, the "lowbrows" were Mark Twain and Theodore Dreiser, and the pace was one novel per week (doesn't seem that much until you consider that was one of three courses--including a short story writing workshop--added on to my 25-hr/week job at the office supply store). I thought Portrait of a Lady was infuriating until I had to tackle The Bostonians! All in all it was a great class, but Land o' Goshen, there were some long, slow nights of reading that semester!

Jan 25, 2010, 1:14 pm

# 9 Thank God that I read his books on my on accord, not for any educational purposes. If someone actually made me read his books (for a class or whatever) I'm sure I'd scream my head off!

I bought his The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers together. While I managed to finish the first one I just couldn't go on with The Aspern Papers. It was just so boring!

One would think I would have learned my lesson by now. Apparently not. I ended up buying his What Maisie Knew at a library sale. I thought I would give him one more chance (besides the books were going so cheap!). I, who have read books that are over a 1000 pages long, could not read a mere 268 pages of What Maisie Knew. This is how I was defeated not once but twice by Henry James.

Jan 25, 2010, 1:52 pm

Oh yes. I recently picked up James's The Golden Bowl, managed four chapters. It was like eating flour straight out of a sack.

Jan 26, 2010, 10:51 am

Oh no! The Golden Bowl. It is the ONLY book to ever defeat me! I just can't get through it. In other threads it has been described as "A magnificent work" and it should be admired like a painting. Blah Blah Blah, I find it exactly like eating flour out of a sack.

Feb 22, 2010, 9:35 am

Glad I'm not alone in the Henry-James-fail camp. I tried The Ambassadors this past spring. I had to sit there with a pad of paper and a dictionary, and I've got a good vocabulary. If the plot had been good, I'd have been fine with it, but it was just page after page describing Strether's point of view in his day to day life in Paris. When I finally reached one of the turning points in the plot, the pace stayed at a crawl and I gave up in disgust.

I was sort of hoping the sheer difficulty of that novel would make his earlier works like The Portrait of a Lady seem like cakewalk. However, considering all the great classics out there, it seems silly to waste time on authors one doesn't like.

Apr 2, 2010, 3:55 pm

KatherineAdelaide - regarding contemporary fiction and its varying quality, you might want to read an essay called A Reader's Manifesto, an article length version is available on-line, if you haven't already. It addresses just why contemporary literary fiction doesn't compare to the classics in many cases.

Add me to the list of those who find Henry James often tedious. I understand that his 'early period' works are easier on the reader and I agree with this. I loved Washington Square and was fine with The Turn of the Screw. I saw the movie version of The Wings of the Dove and bought a really beautiful edition that I couldn't get through. Apparently his contemporaries, including Edith Wharton had the same issues we do with his later prose style.

I had to read The Bostonians in high school and hated it with a fiery passion. Now for a readable late nineteenth/early twentieth century prose style, may I humbly suggest his brother William. The Varieties of Religious Experience was a surprisingly enlightening and enjoyable read. I am keeping my eyes out for a nice edition of his psychology book.

Edited: Aug 1, 2010, 8:34 am

#6 to #13

I've just discovered this thread and I really have to thank you all so much. Now I don't have to feel guilty at finding reading Henry James like trying to walk through knee-deep mud!

I have to admit to another classic writer that I just can't get on with - George Eliot. I almost lost the will to live trying to read Middlemarch.

Edited to give Henry James a 'good bracketing', and he still won't come up in blue - typical of him!

Edited: Aug 2, 2010, 1:32 pm

Goethe; I never succeeded in finishing both parts of Faust, or Elective Affinities or Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Edited: Aug 1, 2010, 3:06 pm

Whenever I come across a classic I do not enjoy, I do not assume it is the classic that "sucks." The books that predate the 19th century are classics, or even Western canon, for a reason; you have not found a fault in them that people two hundred years ago failed to see, and yet we still read them. If I am having problems reading, say, Defoe, it's not Defoe's fault and I will not think less of his works in terms of quality (though we always reserve the right to also judge based on enjoyment); it would be my problem, not his.

Aug 1, 2010, 4:59 pm

For me and my family it has been Virginia Woolf. I read and disliked both Mrs Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, with To The Lighthouse being particularly interminable. My wife tried Mrs Dalloway and Orlando and enjoyed neither. While my daughter had a bad experience with both Mrs Dalloway and A Room of One's Own.

Aug 1, 2010, 5:01 pm

#16 I don't think we'd say a particular classic "sucks" as any kind of serious value judgement, Phocion; but one can't like everything and I think the comment I made above about feeling guilty is a very relevant one. We recognise all you say about classics and, just because of that, we feel a little guilty about not personally liking a particular one (or writer) and take a little light-hearted comfort in being able to share our dislike in a thread like this. But it is light-hearted.

Edited: Aug 1, 2010, 9:48 pm

#16 Just because it's a classic doesn't mean we can't criticise the quality of the writing, so long as you put it in context (i.e. have read at least some contemporary works). Defoe is to my mind a perfect example of what I'm trying to illustrate. I particularly didn't like Robinson Crusoe. While the overarching religious tone in the book I can forgive given the age of the work, I can't forgive the rambling sentences and the constant reminders that there were two names for somethings - I'll have to go back to the book for a direct example, but normally it would say "I picked up my X (which I called a Y)". There's a difference between using language that is now outdated and therefore difficult to understand and something being poorly written.

I don't think it's reasonable to argue that just because something is 'classic' means it's always well written. Books become classics for a whole range of reasons - they say some thing about a particular period in time, their subject matter transends time, it's simply a good story, at the time it was published it pushed particular boundaries, etc - none of which guarantee they were written well.

(Edited due to my inability to type!)

Edited: Aug 1, 2010, 10:51 pm

The concept of good writing changes with time, as well; would that there was a single standard that carried over from generation to generation, but there is not. Today, we may consider Defoe a bad writer; in the 18th century, Robinson Crusoe was the only book Jean-Jacques Rousseau thought was necessary to read to be educated; fifty years from now, people may find Defoe's writing superior to Tolstoy's.

If something were very badly written, it would not survive time and be published as widely as Defoe's works are.

Aug 2, 2010, 3:03 am

I definitely agree with those who have nominated Henry James but until now my real bug-bear was Heart of Darkness. I say 'until now' because I've spent the past two months struggling to get anywhere with Robinson Crusoe. It's a set book for the course I'm taking so I'm going to have to finish it one day but for now I've finally abandoned the damn thing and adopted a decent study guide. I've never wished ill before on anyone who was stuck on a desert island but, my god, if I could arrange for this bloke to be struck by a falling coconut, I would. It's not a problem with Defoe himself - I love Moll Flanders.

Aug 2, 2010, 7:24 am

I remember reading "Heart of Darkness" and being very disappointed. I suppose I expected grandiose things from it since "Apocalypse Now" is based on it, and is one of my favorite movies.

But one "classic" novelist I've never been able to crack is Dickens. I've tried several of his novels, and just completely bounced on them. And this has always bothered me, because I feel I'm missing out on something. Everybody just seems to love Dickens to death, and it feels like I'm on the outside looking in.

Aug 2, 2010, 11:23 am

#20 "If something were very badly written, it would not survive time and be published as widely as Defoe's works are."

I'd have to give a yes and a no on that one, Phocion. It it were 'very badly' written, perhaps not; but a mediocre writer can create a story good enough to capture the imagination of generations. I'd suggest that Robinson Crusoe is bought more often for the iconic story than for Defoe's prose.

Bram Stoker's Dracula comes to mind (though I don't know if it would be regarded as a 'classic'). I don't suppose a more iconic story has been created in the last couple of centuries. It's gripped the imagination of succeeding generations of film-makers and authors who have recycled it back to audiences (would all this 'Twilight' stuff exist without it?). All this must ensure continuing sales for the novel and it would be difficult to argue that those sales are down to the book's own merit. A lot of horror fans probably fork out the money and then find themselves struggling with it.

So there can be external reasons for a book's survival. I suspect that a few books that would otherwise have faded into obscurity were saved by a few academics deciding they were 'canonical' - then they get taught in university courses and then get cravenly read by a few literature snobs like myself.

Just in case I've attracted the ire of any LT Goths or what have you, I actually enjoy re-reading Dracula every few years or so.

Aug 2, 2010, 11:34 am

#23 You're right rankamateur, Dracula demonstrates perfectly the difference between an enjoyable book and a well-written one. But if anyone thinks badly written books don't survive, try taking a look at the poems of William McGonagall: these have survived purely because they are so badly written. Even the many 'fan clubs' take pride in their love of 'the world's worst poet'.

Aug 2, 2010, 4:31 pm

I retract and admit that something So Bad It's Good might survive - who does not enjoy an Ed Wood movie? - so you are right that some works continue banking on the idea that they are impressively bad. Dofoe and Stoker have never struck me as being particularly bad writers, but perhaps I've come across enough awful contemporary literature in my life that they look great by comparison.

Aug 3, 2010, 4:33 am

Oh I never said that the author I don’t like is a bad author. All I’m saying is that I don’t enjoy reading him. #22 doesn’t enjoy Dickens who is one of my favourite authors. But that’s ok. Not everyone will like everything and not everything is meant to be taken seriously. We’re all having a bit of fun anyway. :-)

Aug 3, 2010, 3:14 pm

It is funny all the books mentioned above are some of my favorite books. I love Defoe , James, and Conrad. I have trouble with Don Quixote. I just can't finish it.

Jan 4, 2011, 4:04 pm

#22 - Though I loved The Heart of Darkness I agree with you, Dickens, I was never able to get into. His work is hailed as the best of the best and I tried reading A Tale of Two Cities, David Copperfield, and Nicholas Nickleby and fell asleep to all of them. My sister loves his work but personally it drove me crazy that he took soooo long (like 100 pages) to say one thing!

On this i'm with you, i'm on the outside lookin' in.

Jan 4, 2011, 7:53 pm

Jan 5, 2011, 8:39 am

Don't try Dombey and Son.

Jan 6, 2011, 3:54 pm

RE: lareinak and Don Quixote,

I agree with you, I found the book got rather tedious after a while. In my opinion, it could be 2/3rd shorter and be a much better book. I got the point, and the joke fairly early on, but it just keeps pounding you over the head with it.

I tend to finish everybook I start, only ones that I can remember in recent memory that I stopped reading were Moby Dick by Herman Melville and On the Orgins of the Species by Charles Darwin.

I stopped Moby Dick because I got tired of long, boring discriptions of whales. I understand that at the time it was written, that most people had never seen a whale, but my god, just get on with the story.

I quite reading Origin of Species because I am not a biologist, nor do I want to be one. I found I was just reading words, not absorbing anything. Total waste of my reading time. I hope the Voyage of the Beagle is a better read.

Bill Masom

Jan 8, 2011, 11:59 am

The Voyage of the Beagle is an excellent read.

Jan 8, 2011, 12:41 pm

The Awakening. I just couldn't finish it. I refuse to finish it, but I'm sure I'll have to read it someday for a class.

Jan 8, 2011, 3:29 pm

>31 Bill_Masom: Ha! That was the exact place where I had to put Moby Dick down. But I do intend to pick it up again one day and finish it.

Edited: Feb 19, 2011, 7:39 am

I hear a lot of people struggling with Moby Dick, I've yet to try it myself.

I had trouble with Conrad's short stories like Heart of Darkness too, but preferred some of his longer stuff like Nostromo.

I'm not sure how classic it really is but I struggled with Catch 22 when I was younger.

I don't think I've ever had a book that was so bad I stopped reading with the intention never to finish it.

EDIT: to correct numerous typos.

Edited: Feb 18, 2011, 2:24 pm

I read Moby Dick in 7th Grade. I think I managed to make it through because I anticipated the whole thing to be challenging, and when it got to the detailed chapters on whaling-this-and-whaling-that, I figured I was getting what I'd signed up for and muddled on. Not sure what I would have thought had I tried it later in life. The last few chapters are fantastic. For kids who can do it, it's got a sort of Treasure Island adventure feel to it.

I couldn't get through Catch 22 when I tried it in my twenties. It's on my list of "books to try again someday." Alongside Great Expectations, which I can't explain not getting through ...

There's a couple of classics I've read which fell so flat that I'm practically obligated to try them again sometime and see if I can't get more from them: Heart of Darkness being one, which I remember almost nothing about, and The Great Gatsby being another. Both short and easy, happily.

My personal albatross is Thomas Hardy, who is way too depressing for me and I've never enjoyed anything by him, but I've yet to tackle Jude the Obscure which I'm told is his best.

Feb 18, 2011, 8:47 pm

Catch 22 is reduntantly redundant with it redundancy.

Feb 19, 2011, 12:51 pm

#36 I always think Far From the Madding Crowd is Hardy's best; possibly because it's quite upbeat (for a Hardy novel). I have a love/hate relationship with him - wonderful writer, grim story-teller.

I've read Heart of Darkness three times, I think, and I seem to get something more out of it each time. I think it repays the effort; but I've never thought of it as a 'short and easy' read, though, considering it's only novella-length.

Feb 25, 2011, 12:16 pm

I nominate Sir Walter Scott. I made it through Waverley and The Bride of Lammermoor but did not like either one. I was particularly annoyed by his habit of using two nouns where one would obviously do - "She was seated on a couch or sofa." Just pick a word, Walt! Jeez.

Feb 26, 2011, 10:26 am

9, 12. 13, et al,

I got pummeled by the Ambassadors. Reminded me of what HG Wells said of James' writing. 'Something about a Hippo pushing a pea all over a room, trying to pick it up with his snout.

I liked Nostromo, especially after a plot started to emerge after the first 1/3 or so, of the novel.

I see a lot of LTers bashing The Heart of Darkness. Conrad's not for everyone; I enjoyed it and it definitely is worth another read. But then again, I like The Sun Also Rises and that really gets bashed around here.

Feb 26, 2011, 11:17 am

#40 Try not to take it personally, Sandydog. I'm still in actual physical pain over anyone nominating anything at all by Dickens or Hardy and as for Middlemarch (sob!). . . it's no good, I can't even talk about it . . . they must be the kind of people who tell you your baby's ugly.

Edited: Feb 26, 2011, 3:03 pm

I'm with you on all three, sloth.

If you want to see some real despair and carnage, check this old thread, out:

Feb 26, 2011, 5:17 pm

Oh, I remember that one very well. I had to withdraw from it in the end because I'd started twitching and gibbering.

Feb 26, 2011, 5:17 pm

I think I got a bad taste in my mouth for Thomas Hardy when I was forced to read Tess of the d'Urbervilles in school. It felt like one long funeral durge... I have Far From The Madding Crowd on my 2011 read list, but I bet it keeps moving to the bottom...

Feb 26, 2011, 5:24 pm

Well, FFTMC does at least end well but dirginess is the whole point of Hardy; to dislike him because a book is like a funeral dirge is like not liking . . . um, well, funeral dirges for the same reason.

(I am only kidding - diversity in tastes is one of the few things that separates us from reptiles.)

Feb 26, 2011, 5:28 pm

>44 DeniseDorminy:

Try in anyway. I hated Hardy when they made me read it in school (at 11? I loved reading but he was way over my head). I picked up Tess again a few years later... and I loved it.

This tends to be my way with a lot of authors though - I dislike them the first time around (usually because of inappropriate age and/or mood) and then I start liking them... And it was kinda weird because I grew up reading the Russian classics and never found them boring (although the only time I tried to read Dostoevsky in English (The House of the Dead I think), I hated it and never finished the book -- I actually picked up a Russian copy, started over and loved it - something in the translation was loosing the voice of Dostoevsky to some extent).

Feb 26, 2011, 7:20 pm

#46 You raise a very interesting point. When I've read non-English novels in the past, it's rarely - if ever - occurred to me to wonder if there's a choice of translations and, if so, which are the best.

Feb 26, 2011, 8:22 pm

>47 alaudacorax:

Translations can ruin the book - or change it in a way that it is almost unrecognizable for a native speaker - it may be a great translation and all but part of the author voice get lost... and sometimes that is enough to change the book.

I grew up in Bulgaria so I had read a lot of the English classics in Bulgarian (and in Russian - we had them around the house and I was bored). I reread a lot of them when I could read nicely enough in English - for most of them the translations were actually great but there was a difference... the idioms choices (which lead to slightly different associations even if they are perfectly matched - there are no two languages that can pass the same message exactly as it is -- not to native speakers of the languages anyway) for example.

Don't get me wrong - I like translated books - they allow me to read things I would not be able to otherwise. :)

Feb 27, 2011, 8:10 am

#48 - Yes, I suppose it's one of those unfortunate facts of life that we don't get all the nuances the author intended and that the translator has probably (even if unconsciously) given us nuances that the author didn't intend.

I suppose we either have to make up our minds to accept the book in front of us on its own merits - or go bonkers worrying about it!

Sep 25, 2011, 8:12 am

I'll add "me too" to numerous others above concerning Henry James. I simply cannot finish a book of his. The only other author / work I can easily recall who tops HJ's record was Norman Mailer's Ancient Evenings, which stopped me stone cold almost immediately. HJ, though, I keep slogging ahead thinking "it HAS to get better" and... it doesn't. I start other books; the reading pile next to my chair begins to obscure the HJ; and months later I notice it at the very bottom of the stack, a sort of squat pedestal to more engaging stuff, and put it away. Failed again.

I'm pretty unwilling to give up on a book. I don't know why HJ hits me like this.