Some classic books live up to the hype they’ve garnered and can still speak to today’s readers. Then there are the classics that, well, don’t.
These are the classic books you can probably skip – or at least read with lowered expectations.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The Brontës have something about writing despicable characters. But while sister Charlotte’s Rochester is made tolerable by her competent and clever protagonist, Wuthering Heights is just an exhibition in human selfishness and cruelty. I actually liked Wuthering Heights in some ways, but as a classic romance of thwarted true love? No one in the book has the capacity for love, and I was happy everyone was miserable and died.
If you choose to read Wuthering Heights, adjust your expectations: this is not a book to read with a box of tissues and a bottle of red. Instead, you will hate every single disgusting character. Also, there’s a whole part two with another generation of terrible people that never seems to make it into the movies; probably because it’s boring.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I know, I know! Gatsby is so stylish right now, and just about every television show and movie features some excuse to dress everyone as flappers and make pseudo-intellectual comments about The Great Gatsby.
I just don’t get what the big deal is. When Fitzgerald first presented it to his editor, he was told it was “too vague.” Apparently there were some edits, but I still agree with that assessment. What is the point? What is the plot? What is happening? Maybe it’s supposed to trigger these existential questions. Maybe it’s supposed to mirror the emptiness of Gatsby’s luxurious and morally questionable life by providing us with an immaterial story. It just seems like nothing happens, everyone overacts and kills someone or themselves. And then Nick decides it was all dull anyway.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I feel blasphemous saying this. I debated this inclusion, because I actually quite like Jane Austen. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and I own four film versions.
However, she is on the list – not because her books don’t have any merit, but because her popularity is blown wildly out of proportion. Austen is a clever writer and as a sheltered woman to have such a firm grasp on the social context of her time and convey it with wit is certainly impressive.
But the hype is so enormous it’d be almost impossible to live up to. She is not the be-all-and-end-all of female writing – certainly not in history, and not even during her time. She was revolutionary in some ways, but in the end the girl gets the guy and social order is restored. Is it ironic? Maybe – but it doesn’t change the fact that when we read Austen, we don’t read for irony, really. We read with our fingers crossed that the heroines will make their advantageous marriage. Austen knew what readers wanted, and she gave it to them; and apparently we still want to read about clever girls marrying assholes.
Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Catcher in the Rye was unique in its antiheroic Holden Caulfield and for encapsulating angsty, privileged teenagehood. For that, I give it props – it deserves a seat among the best for making ordinary adolescence a topic for literature and conversation.
But it doesn’t mean it’s good. Catcher in the Rye is repetitive, annoying, and boring. Holden is possibly the most irritating protagonist in history, which is an achievement in itself. So while I get its innovation, I don’t get why I have to read it. Even as an angsty, privileged teenager it made my skin crawl – it’s the literary equivalent of nails on the chalkboard. It just made me want to punch Holden – or myself – in the face.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Faulkner were all big fans of Anna Karenina. It’s called flawless', 'magical', the 'best book ever written'. Yes, Tolstoy has writing chops that make me weep with envy. I remember being profoundly moved, and admired how he could enter the psyche of women so well. But flawless? He could have used a massive edit. There are enormous swathes of Anna Karenina that are simply political rants. I could have skipped hundreds of pages, not lost anything in plot, and finished much quicker. And why does every character have to go by about 15 different names?
Just because Tolstoy is Tolstoy and Anna Karenina has some truly inspiring writing doesn’t mean we can’t also acknowledge his flaws. He often used his writing as a soapbox and, frankly, I’m really not interested in what he thought of Russian labour laws in the 1870s. Sorry.
Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
What the fuck? Excuse my language, but those three words are the only way to describe what goes on in those pages. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t stoned, but I simply did not get Naked Lunch. And I don’t mean “not get” as in, I found it boring or I didn’t understand the hype – I actually literally did not understand any sentence in the book. It was like reading another language. I remember there being some gruesome sexual deaths, lots of drug dealings, and weird bird-human creatures (I think?).
Some criticism uses terms like “non-narrative literature” to imbue Burroughs with importance, like he’s the Joyce of the Beat Generation. But let’s face it – Naked Lunch is some sex-crazed guy on a drug trip writing shit down. And maybe that’s interesting for a few pages. But it doesn’t make it enjoyable, nor does it make it a literary classic.
So don’t feel obligated to add these so-called classics to your list of must reads – they aren’t as perfect as they’re made out to be. Instead, why not read these classics?