October 12, 2015

Classic Conversations | Tips for Reading Classics

Thank you everyone for the great response to the first installment of my latest feature, Classic Conversations. I loved talking about what exactly makes a book a classic with all of you and I really hope we can continue all of these amazing conversations (hence the title) throughout the series. 

Since a lot of people (including me) are intimidated, and perhaps even a little bit scared, of reading classics. And there are a ton of good reasons for this put-off, like not being able to understand the time period, writing, or what the heck is even going on in the plot. I totally understand where you are coming from. I have definitely sat in literature classes where I was completely lost on what we were talking about and just prayed that the test would be multiple choice so that I would have some chance of passing. It was a terrible experience and not one that I would be willing to repeat outside of school. 

Fortunately for you I have some tips on how to understand, and hopefully learn to enjoy, classics. 

1. Finding Commitment and Warming Up
I am not going to lie to you. There is definitely a learning curve to reading classics. You might not like the first own that you read on your own, but that is not a reason to give up on the entire genre. The more you get used to reading books from different time periods, with different societies and languages, and morals, the better off you are going to be. I would suggest starting with one of the shorter classics, like The Great Gatsby, or one that is easier to read with simpler writing, like To Kill a Mockingbird, to warm up. 

2. Take Notes
Even though you are not in an English class, taking notes on the book is incredibly important. You should write down the anything that you do not understand and try to make sense of it in your own words. Also, this is a great way to remember which character is which and all of the complicated, but crucial, details of the book. Feel free to write down your predictions, questions, comments, and even your complaints. Everything will help you understand, and maybe even connect, with the story.
Just pretend that you are going to write a review for the book. I know that many bloggers and reviewers like to jot down a couple of key points about a book so they can remember what they think of it and what is going on. That is the same for classics. 

3. Sparknotes is your friend
I promise that your English teacher from the past will never know. It is true that online guides like Sparknotes, CliffNotes, and Schmoop are not a substitute for actually reading the book. That is why your English teacher told you not to use them. They do not have every detail about the book. They will not magically give you a complete understanding of the book. They will most likely not guarantee an A on your literature test. 
But in this case, these guides are just supplements to help us understand the novel AFTER we read the book. It is never a good idea to read the guides before you actually read the book. 

4. Discuss
This is probably the most important tip that I can give you. After all, this is really what all literature is about--spreading ideas. I can guarantee you that there is not one "right" way to interpret a classic novel. There might be one answer that a teacher is looking for on a test, but that is a completely different matter. 
This is what Classic Conversations is all about. I am going to talk about what I thought about a book, and you can tell me if you agree or disagree. We will both learn something new and hopefully become better people because of it.
One other important thing about discussing books:
You can never be wrong as long as you back up your claim. Everyone has different opinions. You could think that the green light in The Great Gatsby symbolizes hope and love, but I could think that it is a symbol of obsession and regret. Both answers would be right if you back it up with evidence from the text. As fun as that sounds, it is necessary. You cannot just pull answers out of thin air and hope that they will be right. For example, if you are doing a science project about how long guinea pigs sleep, you cannot just make up some numbers. You actually have to get some guinea pigs and watch them sleep, as painful as that sounds. 

Do you have any other tips about reading classics? What were your previous experiences with classics like? Are you willing to read more of them, or have you been put off from them forever? What classic do you want to read first? What else do you want to see in the Classic Conversations feature?

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