Last December, when one of my best friends insisted that I read Pride and Prejudice, neither one of us knew what she was starting.
It was her favorite book, and I’d lately been thinking that, for someone who loved to read as much as I did, I was shockingly ill-read. I’d barely touched a classic, other than the few I’d read for school and the ones my mom had made me listen to on audiobook during long car rides as a kid. So after I finished Pride and Prejudice (and loved it), I proposed a means to become the well-read, cultured human being I wanted to be: a two-man, classics-only book club. It was a simple setup: one classic novel, which we’d select in advance, for each month of 2018. She agreed to participate but didn’t have time; I finished out the year. And I’m incredibly glad I did. Each of the twelve selected books taught me something and, on this first day of my second annual classic lit challenge (books to come! I’m still waiting for my first to come via library request because I’m a diva and can’t read an 800-page book on a screen – sorry, can’t), I thought it might be nice to reflect on the reading I did this year.
- January: The Scarlet Letter
The Lesson: the trick to finishing a book is to convince yourself that you love it until it’s over.
When I was reading “The Scarlet Letter” – which my friend chose, not me – I thought I liked it. I convinced myself that I loved Hawthorne’s obsession with run-on sentences and describing everything in mind-numbing detail because it was “evocative” and pretended I didn’t care that reading ten pages made me want to sleep. And that was good. It allowed me to get through a book that I would later openly acknowledge that I’d hated.
Perhaps I’m too young for things like this. I know someone’s probably going to yell at me in the comments about how I’m a disrespectful heathen youth who should have more reverence for the classics. (*slinks into the corner* I’m sorry, I’m trying!) Even so, I just did not enjoy this. The value in my reading it? I learned early on how to finish a book I didn’t like – and I had to do that a lot this year.
2. February: The Count of Monte Cristo
The Lesson: classics aren’t inherently unlike any other books – you can love them just as much as you would anything else.
IT HAS BEEN ELEVEN MONTHS AND I AM STILL IN LOVE WITH THIS BOOK. Perhaps my experience was altered by the fact that I read the only copy my school library had, which was abridged by half its length, but still. Page count excepted, “Count” has such a compelling story that it’d easily be my first recommendation to anyone who’s never read a classic and thinks they don’t want to. I finished the 500-page version I read in about a week during an incredibly busy part of the school year because it sucked me in. I’d never felt that way about a classic novel and I didn’t even know I could. I always sort of assumed you were supposed to read them coldly, detachedly, admiring from afar without getting attached. Boy, was I wrong.
This is my best friend’s favorite book, which was part of the reason we chose it. Not only can I see why after having read it, but (as you know if you’ve seen the About page) I think I can safely say that it’s one of mine as well.
March: My Ántonia
The Lesson: don’t let your past reading experiences determine your book choices.
I thought that I hated pioneer books.
This is because, when I was a small child, my mother tried to make me read “Little House on the Prairie” OVER and OVER and OVER, and also homeschooled us with a curriculum that included a great deal of snore-inducing middle grade novels about pioneers. So when my friend (who picked, I’m pretty sure, every book on here except The Moonstone and Les Mis) selected this book, I had to physically try not to groan. I thought I’d hate it. I did not hate it. Conclusion: Child Sarah is not a reliable source of opinions about books.
If I had allowed my bias against pioneer books to prevent me from reading “My Ántonia,” I would have missed out on what has to be the best feel-good classic I’ve ever read.
(Is it bad that I shipped Jim and Ántonia, thought…?)
April: Les Miserables
The Lesson: there’s nothing scary about long books once you’ve actually read one.
I was the one who chose this book. I love the musical version of Les Mis more than life itself so I wanted to check out the book, not realizing how long it was. (I read the Barnes and Noble version, which cut out about 400 pages of what it said was “sociological analysis,” but it was still 800 pages!). This was unfortunate because the month I had to read it, I was in a play (which means tech week, ew) and had to prepare for my AP Exams, which were in early May. Busy month + the longest book of the challenge = very bad idea, clearly. So I was a bit intimidated.
But I survived, and I enjoyed it, and I’ve never been prouder of myself than I was when I finished an 800-page book during the busiest month of the year only two days too late. (May 2nd, I think.) And most of all, I learned that I CAN read a long book if I plan it well. They’re not scary, they just need to be approached correctly.
May: Sense and Sensibility
The Lesson: you won’t always like all of an author’s work equally, no matter how much you enjoy that author.
I loved Pride and Prejudice. Naturally, not having read any other Jane Austen books, I thought that meant I loved Jane Austen. I do still enjoy her work, but not all of it is equally enjoyable to me. “Sense and Sensibility” bored me half to tears. And it was then that I learned that I won’t always enjoy everything an author writes – and that’s fine. Really, one of my biggest takeaways for the year was that it’s perfectly fine not to like every book you read; this is no exception.
June: Northanger Abbey
The Lesson: opinions change – sometimes very frequently.
I was not optimistic about this third Jane Austen novel after finishing S&S. But I loved NA. It was incisive and funny and I LOVED Catherine. (She’s a morbid, melodramatic bookworm! ME!) I don’t have a lot to say about it, but it was a great time. And it definitely showed me that my opinions will change more often than I ever expect them to.
July: Wuthering Heights
The Lesson: finding your least-favorite book is just as important as finding your favorite.
I DESPISE this book. (Sorry! I know it’s probably someone’s favorite and I just desecrated it! But I did!) I don’t know why but once the Scarlet Letter Technique of pretending to like it until it’s over got me through this (mostly read on a plane flight to Wisconsin), I just could not stand it. It was so not my thing that I quite literally wanted to fight a book. I’ve got nothing – no excuse. I just. Could. Not. Stand. It.
And for that, it stuck with me as much as any book I’ve ever loved. (This also happened with “The Name of the Rose.” More on that later.)
August: Jane Eyre
The Lesson: the amount of variation in works within a narrow genre can be astounding.
Wuthering Heights didn’t leave me with a rosy view of Gothic romances. I was surprised, then, when I found myself enjoying Jane Eyre. Thinking back on it, that was probably due in large part to the fact that Jane is a fantastic protagonist. I adore Jane and that is just a thing that I have decided. She’s independent and has a brain, and I love that. I also love that her prudence and bright intellect drive so much of the story. And yes, the romance is problematic in many ways, but coming on the heels of Wuthering Heights (I read this one early, on the same trip on which I read W.H.), it looked downright blissful – and that made it VERY romantic. It’s amazing how different two supposedly “similar” books can be – don’t judge a book by its Goodreads “you might also like” suggestions…
September: A Room With a View
The Lesson: “meh” is okay, as long as the book is short.
I neither loved nor hated A Room With a View. It was…there. However, since it was less than 200 pages, this was okay. It had its bright spots: Lucy Honeychurch is an adorable smol for whom I would willingly die, and THE VIOLET FIELD KISS, AH. Someone get me a 16-or-17-year-old male who is willing to kiss me and a field of violets so I can reenact that, pleeeeease? It was pleasant in an entirely forgettable way, hence the “meh.” And I was okay with that. You don’t have to passionately adore a book to like it.
October: The Moonstone
The Lesson: it’s okay to be disappointed by a book you thought you’d love.
I chose The Moonstone and eagerly waited for ten months to read it because I thought it would be the kind of riveting adventure/mystery that I adored. It was a good book, I’ll give it that, but I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. It was a quiet, peaceful stream where I’d been expecting the Amazon River. In a class-five rapid. I did like it, but my high expectations dampened the eventual reality of the book. I have to say that the most anticipating book on my list being rather meh was a disappointment, but then again, so was “The Name of the Rose.” (Again, more on that infamous weekend binge later…)
November: The Phantom of the Opera
The Lesson: even if you’ve seen the movie, there’s no substitute for reading the book.
I LOVE Phantom-the-musical. It is just about my favorite thing ever. My first crush in high school was essentially a haze of 9th-grade me pining over a senior (love ya, Sergio!) to “Think of Me” while doing nothing about it, and then confessing long after the crush had died, and finding out it was mutual all along-
Anyway. Enough about that. The point is, I chose this book not expecting it to live up to the musical. But it did, in its own way. It was at least six times weirder, but that lent it its own Gothic-horror charm that was largely missing from the far more lavish and palatable musical. I would never have understood the vibe of the story had I only seen the musical. So, even if you’ve seen the movie…
Read the book, kids.
December: A Tale of Two Cities
The Lesson: you probably don’t hate that author as much as you think you do.
I read half of Oliver Twist. Couldn’t finish. So depressing, sigh. (I know that was the point, but I was having a hard time and didn’t need to be further dragged down by a book.) Thus, I thought I hated Dickens – but I didn’t. “A Tale of Two Cities” is slow-moving, but it has to have the single most beautiful ending in all of literature. The whole book is poetic as heck and it especially comes out in the denouement – both in the writing and in the timelessness of the events themselves. People, when in doubt, go with the Jesus ending. Tragic self-sacrifice gets me every single time.
BONUS ROUND: Other classics I read this year, briefly described!
A Passage to India (Feb.): lovely, if a bit stale. I like that period in history, so that helped.
Much Ado About Nothing: makes me almost IRRATIONALLY happy. (The film is delightful too.)
The Name of the Rose: I’ve taken ten years of Christian theology and I STILL UNDERSTOOD ZERO OF THE RELIGIOUS REFERENCES IN THIS INCREDIBLY LONG-WINDED BOOK ABOUT MONKS. (Sorry, religion teachers…you never really covered tiny details of the history of the papacy or obscure Medieval heresies.) IT SPENDS SIX PAGES DESCRIBING A DOOR. SIX. AND THEN TEN DESCRIBING A VISION THAT ACTUALLY ENDS UP BEING FROM A BOOK THAT’S CRITICAL TO THE STORY SOMEHOW. AND LIKE HALF THE BOOK IS THIS BLIND SPANISH MONK YELLING AT EVERYONE ABOUT HOW LAUGHTER IS A SIN. HELP ME. WHY ON EARTH DID I READ THIS BOOK? I THOUGHT I WAS SMART, THAT’S WHY. I THOUGHT I WAS AN INTELLECTUAL. I AM SO, SO, SO NOT. AND I WON’T EVEN START ON THE ENDING… *MANIACAL DESPAIR LAUGHTER* help…
(I read this in a single weekend, because I had nothing else to do at a family event in the most boring city on earth. Bad idea. But hey, it made me think.)
Crime and Punishment: I also hated this one, but at least I’m not using caps…
This one has a story too. I read the last 313 pages on a 13-hour car ride in 106-degree heat. The car had no air conditioning. We only stopped for food and water once in the entire day. I sweated through a pair of shorts so thoroughly that it felt like I’d bathed in them when I got up. And a ratty used-bookstore copy of Crime and Punishment was my sole source of entertainment. I was sort of set up to hate this book even if I didn’t find it relentlessly depressing and dull. Oops.
The Age of Innocence: poetic and boring.
The Scarlet Pimpernel: so much fun. Also, Marguerite Blakeney is the hecking love of my life. It’s not Wednesday, but Marguerite is my WCW every day of the week.
Anna Karenina: long, but rewarding. I vastly preferred Kitty and Levin to Anna and Vronsky, though.