CRITIC’S CORNER COLUMNIST
I’m currently part of my way through “Ulysses” by James Joyce. I was excited to read this work the way I’m usually excited to finally read a book I’ve been hearing about for years as a “must read,” because it’s a modern classic.
However, to be honest, this book is not what I expected and definitely not an easy read. I’m confused and lost half the time and zoned out the other half. Joyce and I are not on the same wave-length, and I find myself getting frustrated as I attempt to make sense of this work which is supposedly so key to the modern era of literature.
This led me to the thought that perhaps we shouldn’t love classics just because they’re classics.
It seems like an obvious conclusion, but I think that far too often we fall into the habit of reading classics because of their genre rather than their objective good as works of literature or fiction. When I first read “Jane Eyre,” I was almost surprised by how much I enjoyed it just as a story, not just because of the excellent quality of the writing and the fact that it was written by Charlotte Bronte.
I tend to enjoy the classics because of the talented authors they represent, and I love finding a new old work to lay claim to having read. But when I approach them, I approach them as classics rather than another story to discover. Because I have high expectations, the classics tend to fly or flop in my estimation after a few chapters.
This isn’t to say that there is no inherent value in classic works of literature. By the fact that they merit the name, there is obviously something present in the author of a classic’s style or ability to present a story which is appealing or at least had an impact on the way society sees literature. It’s important to acknowledge that certain works of writing have had a significant impact on our world, and they deserve to be objectively acclaimed for that.
Moving beyond this, there is a point at which we need to put aside the knowledge that a book is a classic and examine it from our own standards of how literature impacts us personally.
For me, books which have solid characters will stand out far more than those with a thrilling plot, because I enjoy exploring the depths of the human heart within my favorite characters. Perhaps others pick out different elements of literature that appeal to them.
One is not obligated to love or enjoy a classic work simply because it’s a classic. We certainly ought to appreciate the extent to which it has influenced our culture and the way we think, but we are allowed to employ a certain amount of subjectivity regarding our reading choices.
Classics are beautiful works of art. But they can’t be properly appreciated if we attempt to force ourselves into loving them simply because of the label “great” which has been placed on them by others. Beauty is something which is discovered rather than inflicted.
All this to say, I do not find myself obliged to enjoy “Ulysses.” It’s much more freeing to be able to appreciate it objectively while being unable to appreciate a style that inhibits my comprehension.