Reading the classics for fun and … okay, just for fun

I remember once reading Spider Robinson, the science-fiction author, describing how early in his career he became the book reviewer for Analog magazine in the mid-’70s.  Apparently he got a call from Jim Baen, Analog’s editor, who asked him to define the difference between a book critic and a book reviewer.  Robinson’s statement (the short version) was that “a critic tells you whether or not it’s Art; a reviewer tells you whether or not it’s any good to read.”  And Baen hired him on the spot.

That came to mind because I’ve been reading a lot of “classic” novels over the last couple of months.  And to be honest, I really didn’t like some of them.

This current reading jag was provoked by a recent article in TIME Magazine, where their two literary critics gave a list of the 100 most important English-language novels from 1923 (when TIME was first published) to the present.  I love lists like that — always looking at them to see if I agree, see which ones I’ve read/listened to/seen/tasted/whatever the list involves, ask “how could they leave out … ?”  So I went through their 100, found that I had read fourteen of them (probably half of them in high school, but still), and decided to check out some of the others.  Here’s the ones I’ve read in the last few weeks or am still reading:

  • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
  • William Faulkner, Light in August
  • Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men
  • E.L. Doctorow, Ragtime
  • Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children (still working on)

I don’t think I’ll get too much argument from the literati that these are all recognized classics of 20th-century fiction.  But I might cause one of them to drop their meerschaum pipe by saying this: I didn’t like a lot of them.

Seriously.  I was really disappointed by Light in August, which is fairly dull, hard to follow due to Faulkner’s confusing use of the language, and seriously uncomfortable to read in light of the changes in race relations since 1932 (when Light in August was written — and to top it off, it takes place in Mississippi!).  All the King’s Men had some of the same problems, though far less extreme, and didn’t have a single character that I would want one of my kids to be like.  I remember seeing the film adaptation of Ragtime, and even that didn’t help for the first third of the book, as it seemed like Doctorow took a hundred pages before deciding what the central plot would be; that’s a lot of meandering.

But as I think about it, that’s how I’ve always found classic books: some of them I’ve found really enjoyable (Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Cannery Row, ANYTHING by George Orwell), while others seemed like a waste of my time (The Great Gatsby and The Old Man and the Sea topping that list).  I’ve tried to read Catch-22 and given up about thirty pages in.  Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is wonderfully written, but too unrelentingly depressing for me to get through.  Whereas Robinson Crusoe and Wuthering Heights (neither featuring the most likable or enlightened bunch of characters), I couldn’t put down.

Why is this?  I think (as usual for me) that there are two reasons.  One is based on the quote I mentioned earlier: that a critic looks at a book more on the basis of objective artistic merits, where a reviewer is much more subjective.  I won’t deny that all the books I’ve mentioned above as not liking are artistic triumphs.  That’s not the issue; I just didn’t enjoy reading them.  Purely subjective.  And I could list a whole raft of novels that are not considered great literary milestones but which I enjoyed immensely.  It’s a different standard.

The other reason is what my subjective standards are.  Basically I like novels that:

  1. aren’t ridiculously long (600 pages is my limit; I want a good read, not a life experience).
  2. have likeable characters, ones I can admire (not every person in the book has to be, but at least the protagonist(s) and a couple others).
  3. cause me to consider ideas I hadn’t before (one of the reasons I like both science fiction and books by African-American authors).
  4. handle the language well, but without making it harder to read in the process (I value complete sentences, for instance).
  5. most importantly, there has to be good storytelling — a plot you can follow, preferably with some character growth and a little romance (for which I’m a total sucker).

A good example is the one novel I’ve read recently that wasn’t on the TIME list: another Marilynne Robinson book, Gilead.  It’s hardly unknown (it won the National Book Award, after all), but the two critics decided to pick Housekeeping instead, I guess.  Still, it’s about 250 pages, Robinson’s use of the language is imaginative but smooth, has as its protagonist an aging minister writing to his young son about his experience and his family history, and deals directly and wonderfully with issues of family disputes, forgiveness and race without ever becoming preachy or syrupy-sentimental.  If a pagan asked me for an example of a “Christian novel”, I’d recommend Gilead over anything Word or Thomas Nelson has popped out in the last decade.

But that’s just me.  Some people love to get lost in an 1100-page book, or prefer characters with more moral ambiguity, or don’t want to be challenged with new ideas when they’re reading.  That’s fine; there are plenty of books that will fit their criteria.   There’s room (and books) enough for everyone, right?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m a third of the way through the Rushdie, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next …

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One Response to Reading the classics for fun and … okay, just for fun

  1. dhelmer says:

    Ray–At least you’re still reading fiction, classic or otherwise. I used to love reading classic novels; but in recent years, I’ve scarcely read anything that isn’t non-fiction. The last fiction novel I read was the last book in the “Harry Potter” series….And the last novel I read that could be considered “classic” literature was Natsume Soseki’s “Kokoro” (Heart). Trust me, don’t read it…it’s extremely depressing… :(

    In reading your entry above, I was struck by how many books and authors that “smart” people like you and me are told we’re “supposed” to like. (Anything featured on NPR or the New York Times Book Review, for example.) And once I’m told over and over again how “great” the author is, for some reason I tend to avoid their books for that very reason…

    Maybe that’s why my favorite classic novels have tended to come from before the 1920s; by now they’ve stood the test of time. Thomas Hardy, Dostoevsky, Emile Zola, and many others I’m probably forgetting at the moment…whether you like a particular novel of theirs or not, those people sure knew how to write…

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