Sunday, May 23, 2010

All about books: Going cuckoo with the Classics

If I were at school right now, I’d be failing English. I set myself a goal this year to read more classics. I started well with Cold Comfort Farm, but have gone steadily downhill since then. I got two chapters in with Love In a Cold Climate, before being distracted by a Scandinavian crime novel.

Then I watched The Wire and decided that The Great Gatsby might be the go. D’Angelo Barksdale had very good things to say about it during his brief time in prison. I managed half of that. Before being distracted by a cheap American thriller.

So far I’d have one A and two Fs for not finishing the book. (Mind you, I could probably still write you a pass essay on both of those novels, without ever finishing the book. I am sure I am not the first person to have done that during their academic career. A handful of quotes, some decent notes in class and, hey presto, move on to the next one. Though if my mother is reading this, I never actually tested this premise.)

I’m not sure why I’m struggling so much with this challenge. These are Good Books. They have been Good Books by Great Writers for many years and will no doubt remain so. Penguin thinks they’re good enough to warrant the orange-and-white cover.

And yet I’d rather read crime fiction.

I know why I’m so addicted to crime. I love a good conclusion. All the loose ends tied, the questions answered, the problem solved and wrapped in a bow. Even the gore doesn’t bother me. Me, who closes her eyes during RPA to avoid any sight of a knee operation, reads lengthy descriptions of decaying bodies and insect activity (crucial to the time line) without batting an eye. Because I can be certain that it will all work out in the end. If only life were so accommodating.

The Great Gatsby offers no such promise. This is the third or fourth time I have started this book and not so much given up, but faded away. I know Gatsby wants something he can’t have. So do I. I want to finish the book.

Demoralised by my inability to read Good Books, I have come up with a cunning plan for my next foray. My lovely guitar teacher B is doing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at school (year 11) and has asked me to help her with her assignments. I said yes (despite misgivings about just how much help I will be), and in a show of leadership and grown-up-edness, I have begun to read the book.

I am four pages in. Last time I tried this book I got halfway through. I’m aiming higher this time. I need to be able to talk knowledgeably about the nature of the individual and the beauty of Nurse Ratched’s name in two weeks time.

Now all we have to hope is that a must-read Scandinavian crime novel doesn’t hit the shelves in the meantime.


  1. Gee, I must be a classics geek, then. I loooved Love In a Cold Climate (and the sequel, whatever that was called), not-so with The Great Gatsby, but totally adored One Flew...

    I've just read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte for uni, and loved that, too - plus the book that 'wrote back' to it, The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Didn't...ahem... quite finish most of the rest of the required reading, but managed to get the gist of them. I'm good at skimming. ;)

    One book I read this year - not a classic, but a standout read - was The Other Hand by Chris Cleve. Search it out - it's worth it. It will reward you with an unravelling somewhat like a crime story, with writing as tight & lyrical as any classic.

  2. I wonder which Scandinavian crime novel that could be...

    I have Sons and Lovers half-read on the gutenberg project - found 'sons' much more interesting than 'lovers'. The Great Gatsby has always defeated me, just doesn't grab me. I find a lot of classics are (shhhh) dated. A bit of therapy or a twelve-step program and hey presto: there'd be no plot!

    When I was young I didn't have the concept of not finishing a book, but now they fall by the wayside (or bedside) like autumn leaves. The only cure is to stay with my sister for a while, she has MARVELLOUS books...

  3. Oh those crime novels get me every time... but I have moved on to design books... no literary genius there. I would fail Year 12 English spectacularly today. Good luck with getting past the middle! A-M xx

  4. Here's to you getting at least three quarters through this time (baby steps)! ;)

  5. I'm working on Love In The Time Of Cholera at the moment ... and there'll be many more great reads that I missed out on, too. This is my gift to self! xx

  6. I'm with you Al - I want to read those great literary classics but get somewhat into them and then usually a crime novel takes my focus away. At the moment I'm 1/2 way through Catcher in the Rye and Clockwork Orange, but Kylie Ladd has taken my focus away this time. Oh go with Tracy's advice above and get The Other Hand - awesome book!

  7. I heard somewhere that if a book doesn't grab you within the first 100 pages or so, it is ok not to finish it. Apparently the older you get the number of pages reduces in proportion to your age (if you are 70 and you are not engaged by page 10, ditch it!). The rationale is that you have less time to waste and there are so many other books out there you could be reading.

  8. I had this plan several years ago but don't even get an A for effort. I got a C for having the idea. Best I could do was to re-read Tess of the D'urbervilles but im not sure that has an orange and white cover. My shed is full of books i haven't read :(

    Shauna (not Michael)

  9. My theory is that reading can sometimes be too close to 'work' when you write for a living. I find myself concentrating too hard when I read classics or more 'worthy' pieces of literature and find myself reaching for something light and funny for my bedtime chapters.

  10. I cannot talk to you any more. The Great Gatsby is the most brilliant book ever written. I read it every year and cry every time. You have no heart, no soul.


  11. I hear ya. I go through phases with my reading and I try to mix it up a bit, but reading my fave genres is always effortless and I speed through.

    What about some classic crime fiction? Chandler, Hammett.
    Or the original mystery novel - Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White.

    And I'll third "The Other Hand". A remarkable book.

  12. I've read more 'classics' than is necessary in this life due to studying English Lit at university (what was I thinking). I can attest that my fellow students were not funnier, smarter, sexier or even more interesting than non-classics embracers. If anything, they were infinitely more boring, long-winded and up their own arses.

    Read what you fancy, it adds up to a much more fun life.

    PS - TGG is one of my all-time favourite books so do press on. F. Scott was probably the Cathy Kelly of his day, mind.

  13. Trying to read Perfume - story of a murderer and a Penguin classic - I LOVE crime, but having trouble here... Maybe I'm not a classics girl! But it's a good aim!

  14. Oh, I LOVED The Great Gatsby! Maybe you're not in the right frame of mind for it at the moment. All the books I own appeal to me at the time of purchase, but then I'm ready to read the next one, and I have to make a careful choice - otherwise, if I'm not ready for it mentally, I just can't get in to it!

    In any case - not to worry. There are plenty of great classics out there. If GG doesn't grab you, doesn't matter.

  15. Wha? I LOVED Love in a Cold Climate. I thought you'd really like that! Am a bit meh about The Great Gatsby, though...

  16. Maybe I should read these Scandinavian crime thriller things....I think I know of which you speak. I must admit I've only read a lot of the so called classics because I read English at university with a side helping of European and American Literature. So we had to. We have these revision guides here called Bronte Study Guides - I'm sure you have something similar. They have the main themes and the plot condensed so you can talk about it knowledgeably at dinner parties.

    I know the stage version of Cuckoo off by heart as I was an usher at a theatre for a while and someone had to sit in the auditorium every night and make sure the audience were okay. But I've never read the Kesey novel.

    My husband makes all sorts of resolutions every New Year. Eat more exotic fruit etc. One year it was be more postmodernist. Or was it less?


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