Letting Go of Feeling Guilty for Not Reading Classics

Not Reading Classics


A couple months ago, GQ Magazine posted an article titled 21 Books You Don’t Have to Read…and many of them are classics. As I non-English major in college, I’ve read an embarrassingly small number of the “classics.” I read some of them in high school, but honestly, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Great Gatsby are the only ones I remember. Wait, I think I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and The Sun Also Rises too, but I couldn’t tell you a thing about them.

This is kind of embarrassing since people assume, because I’m a book blogger and avid reader, that I am (or should be) well versed in the classics. I’m absolutely not. I haven’t read Jane Austen (which kills my mother), Tolstoy, or Flannery O’Connor. And, I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood until a couple years ago. I’m still trying to make time to read something of hers other than The Handmaid’s Tale (my review).

We were assigned a huge term paper (the kind that involved tons of research and took most of the year to write) our junior year in high school and most of my classmates took this opportunity to delve deep into one of the classics. What did I do? I delved deep into true crime. I wrote my paper on Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. It was an odd choice and I’m sure my teacher toyed with not letting me do it. But, I don’t regret it for a second. I still love true crime to this day and have a continued fascination with Truman Capote.

Every year, I say I’ll make time for a classic or two. But, it never happens and I feel bad about it and I’m not sure why. I’m not in school anymore. I don’t HAVE to read these classics. I’m pretty sure people aren’t going to think I’m stupid because I haven’t read them…and, if they do, I don’t want to be friends with those intellectual snobs anyway! But, I still feel guilty.

So, thank you to GQ Magazine for releasing me from this guilt!

Some Classics GQ Says You Don’t Have to Read

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
I can do without masculine bluster…

Hemingway’s novels—with their masculine bluster and clipped sentences—sometimes feel almost parodic to me.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
I mean, I thought Circe was “written in an impenetrable style”…so, I’m sure this one isn’t for me.

[…] written in an impenetrable style that combines Faulkner and the King James Bible, Blood Meridian is a big, forbidding book that earns the reader bragging rights but provides scant pleasure.

John Adams by David McCullough
Dry and boring do not work for me right now…I don’t care if I’m supposed to be learning something along the way.

[…] his books are written with great care and impressive attention to detail. They also happen to be the driest, boringest tomes you’ll ever sludge through.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
A missing story is a no-go…especially with fantasy.

It never seemed to me that Tolkien cared about his story as much as he cared about rendering, in minute detail, the world he built.

A Few Classics I DO Still Want to Read

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
In my first Readers Recommend post, one of my blog readers said it’s one of the few classics that will make you laugh out loud. Plus, it helps that I don’t remember this one being on a single school reading list when I was in school.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
Because a number of people have said this is their favorite Austen novel.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Because my mother keeps telling me I must…and I love the first line.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I’ve heard it’s dark and the closest a classic will get to “thriller.”

Tell me, how do y’all feel about the classics? Do you feel guilty not having read some of the big ones? Or, am I the only one who hasn’t read them all?

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  1. Wendy wrote:

    I loved I Capture the Castle. It was a book club read a few years ago and such a pleasant surprise. I’ve read Jane Austen and got a kick out of them. But I’m with you on most of the classics. I tried to read Treasure Island to my boys when they were little but we all fell asleep. Life’s too short to read something you don’t enjoy.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Glad to hear another rec for Capture the Castle! I need to make time for it!

      Posted 6.10.18 Reply
  2. Jeanne Grzywacz wrote:

    Read what makes you happy or it becomes a chore, right?
    I highly recommend Pride and Prejudice, my all time favorite! And I actually love This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald:)
    Tell me how Rebecca is…the movie is amazing:)

    I am adding I Capture the Castle to my list now. Thx!!!

    There are still classics I have avoided and it feels good to know just bc they are a “classic” doesn’t mean they are for everyone!

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I didn’t know P&P was your favorite – yay! As much as I loved Gatsby, I thought Paradise was awful. Pretentious and boring…but, I also read it right after having L, so maybe my brain wasn’t in the right place?

      Posted 6.10.18 Reply
    • Cheryl wrote:

      I have read some of the classics, but I do feel that I should make more of an effort to read more…
      I have read Rebecca and it is an all time fab. Loved the movie also.

      Posted 6.12.18 Reply
  3. Rose wrote:

    You will NOT regret reading Pride and Prejudice. I also have not read many of the classics outside of school, but that book is seriously on of the best ever.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  4. Linda S wrote:

    I am new to reading your blog and enjoy it so much. I especially enjoy your BOTM discussions and your book reviews, as we have similar likes/dislikes. For the classics, I recommend “Rebecca” as it is still in my top three books of all times, and I am 60+ and an avid reader. “I Capture the Castle” is also a great book. I recommend “Jane Eyre” too, but stick with it for a bit, and I also loved “Gone With the Wind.” You are doing a great job with your blog, and I thank you.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
    • Angela wrote:

      Linda, I totally agree with your recommendations of Jane Eyre and Gone with the Wind!

      Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  5. Sarah, we are SO alike in this way. I wasn’t an English or Lit major either and have read few classics. I remember struggling through The Old Man and the Sea in high school. It was painful! I especially am NOT drawn to the Brontes or Jane Austen. About 15 years ago, I tried a couple (on a kick to read classics), but they just aren’t the type of stories I go for.

    I still do want to read Rebecca and have in the back of my mind to do a summer read/post or a group read on it. Since so many are recommending I Capture the Castle, I’d give that one a try, too. Fun post!

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  6. Angela wrote:

    I haven’t read a lot of classics since high school. I actually made a goal this year to read or reread at least 6 classics (to which my sister responded, “I don’t read classics, is that bad?”). It was something I wanted to do for myself. I don’t think we should feel like we HAVE to read anything, and I know from my high school days that some of these books are a real slog to get through. At times I feel a little weird or even slightly embarrassed if the people I work with are reading these enormous biographies or Proust and I’m reading chick lit, but I just remind myself that I read things I enjoy, and that should be enough.

    As far as the classics you’re contemplating, I loved I Capture the Castle – it’s a quirky little book, very charming. And I really liked Rebecca, and I want to read more of du Maurier’s works.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  7. RK wrote:

    Great post! The only classics I read were in school and I have no desire to read any others, except maybe Rebecca (and only because I love suspense novels).

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  8. I love classics, but some of them are really awful. Life is too short to force yourself to read bad books. I’ve read almost all of the books you mentioned in this post and liked most of them. I didn’t like Lord of the Rings, though. I tried so many times to get through it and finally gave up.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  9. I haven’t read many of the classics and don’t worry about it. There are too many books out there!

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  10. Brittany wrote:

    I love the Bronte sisters – their books lean towards gothic and twisty, so I would say classics like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are worth a read.

    Looking forward to reading du Maurier as well!

    I wwould be ok without ever reading Austen. Not to be a contrarian, but her books have, historically, bored me.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  11. Gabby wrote:

    I loved Persuasion and Rebecca! I’ve got mixed feelings on classics…I wasn’t an English major either, so basically all of them that I’ve read have been in last 5-6 years or so of my own accord. Some of them have been incredible (Tolstoy!), some of them are surprisingly modern in their concerns (Tess of the d’Urbervilles), but some of them are so boring (Crime and Punishment). I do appreciate having read them, but they’ve been hit and miss in terms of actually enjoying them.

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  12. I’m with you! I was an English major so I have read some, but I haven’t read, like, Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights or any Jane Austen and at this point I’ve accepted that I’m not going to. The style of writing is just not for me. I do recommend Rebecca though, it definitely does have the creepy/unsettling vibe of thrillers I love, and none of the stuffy “classic” writing I can’t seem to get into!

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  13. Torrie wrote:

    I just finished A Farewell to Arms, and you’re definitely not missing much. What a depressing book about war, booze, women, and rain.

    I definitely second I Capture the Castle! What a dreamy book to get lost in. Also, if you haven’t read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that’s a great classic to pick up as well (esp. as a book lover, as it talks about how the protagonist gets lost in books as a kid).

    Posted 6.7.18 Reply
  14. Madeline wrote:

    Great post which has created an internal dialogue with myself on what IS a classic.

    Is there such a thing as ‘a classic’ vs. ‘The Classics?’ I too read the GQ article and wasn’t overly impressed; I’m pretty sure the author hadn’t read all the books s/he was commenting on.

    “Classics” to me conjures up Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Rudyard Kipling, the Brontes, Charles Dickens, Henry James, Willa Cather, James Joyce, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Joseph Conrad and, well, you get the idea.

    But David McCullough? Err, no. McCullough is imminently readable. I loved John Adams and if that doesn’t convince you, take a look at The Greater Journey; expat Americans in the late 19th C. And to go further, I think McCullough is one of a group of important contemporary historians including Jon Meacham, Joseph Ellis and Ron Chernow (yeah, the guy who wrote Hamilton). But would I call any of them “Classics?” Hmm, not sure but I don’t think so.

    I’ve arrived at the idea that there are small ‘c’ classics and capital ‘C’ classics. For example: A Catcher In the Rye. Definitely classic. But not Classic. I would say the same for Rebecca. It’s the first Gothic romance novel. It’s not much more nor any less. But definitely ‘classic.’

    I recently read I Capture the Castle. I would put it in the same category as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I loved as a preteen). But they’re both what would be called YA today. Small ‘c’ classic in my opinion and I wouldn’t recommend rereading either as an adult without risking disappointment.

    Posted 6.9.18 Reply
  15. You should definitely not read anything you’re not interested in reading, and you should NEVER feel guilty for not having read a specific book yet. Everyone reads different books at different times, and that is absolutely fine. (I am trying to enact this in my own life. Occasionally I still feel guilty about not having read a particular classic yet, but that’s irrational.)

    Posted 6.9.18 Reply
  16. David wrote:

    After re-reading Of Mice and Men, I slid into Grapes of Wrath and The Winter of Our Discontent, the latter of which really entertained me. Sometimes a good book is a gateway to a great book.

    Posted 6.10.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      Good for you!

      Posted 6.14.18 Reply
  17. Sarah R wrote:

    I was a Finance major but I’ve always been an avid reader. I don’t read classics much either, but I did recently finish Rebecca and really enjoyed it. It feels so current. I tried to get into Jane Austen before reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, and just couldn’t get into it. I know that an unpopular opinion among readers!

    Posted 6.12.18 Reply
    • Sarah Dickinson wrote:

      I’m getting so many comments pushing Rebecca! I think I’ll have to make that a priority at the end of this year when I read some backlist.

      Posted 6.14.18 Reply
  18. Catherine wrote:

    I can’t really answer your question because I was an English major, but…there are classic authors I’ve never read and I could care less. I finally read Moby Dick out of some perverse sense of ‘damnit, I can do this’ and that was 3 weeks of my life I’ll never get back. Yuck.

    You shouldn’t feel compelled to read anything, but as far as classics go, Jane Austen is the best. Well, she was to me, because they’re like historical chick-lit. There is nothing deep or weighty there- they’re just light and entertaining. Persuasion is a good choice and Sense and Sensibility is lovely.

    Posted 6.12.18 Reply
  19. Oh man, I suffer through the guilt too because I went to a really crap high school (I only found this out later when during discussions about reading material I realized I wasn’t assigned anything, ever lol) so I tried chipping away at a few backlist books and found very few to love. But I did love some and I think that’s what makes me keep trying the occasional classic. I did read Blood Meridian and I can also say it’s not worth it. Rebecca really was great and didn’t really read like most (boring) classics. I’ not sure if you listen to audiobooks but that’s how I consume most classics and P&P (Rosamund Pike narrates) was fantastic.

    Posted 6.12.18 Reply
  20. Arianna wrote:

    I just finished Rebecca a few weeks ago – SO worth the read; I’m glad I finally got around to it. It flies, for a “classic”, and I 5-starred it for sure.

    Posted 6.14.18 Reply
  21. Rebecca is a really good book. So spooky without the blood and gory. I think you might like it….

    Posted 6.15.18 Reply

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