I was only two classes into my English major when I was assigned Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. It is practically a brick, with my copy coming in at a stunning 1036 pages, printed in what seemed like point 8 font. It’s a novel about a variety of things (including a Dickens trademark orphan), but the heart and center is a long-running legal case used to satirize the corruption and inefficacy of the English judicial system. The novel is marked by 1850s language, and often completely irrelevant, labyrinthine, and impenetrable prose. In short, it’s not something to read with half of your head engaged.
I made it through. Mostly. There were sections I skimmed, pages I skipped – any English major knows the drill. But I sincerely tried – and didn’t drop the major – and I find that Bleak House is one of the few books that really stands out to me throughout my educational experience. The toil and tears and nights spent googling 1800s judicial systems gave me a far deeper understanding of what the novel was actually saying, beyond what the story told.
This experience is not unique to me, and it’s most certainly not conditional to Dickens. Any student of literature has most likely had that one particularly vexing novel that you’d rather punt out a window than do a close reading paper on. And while the Internet makes it fairly easy to get away with not reading and still being able to generally bull your way through a conversation (be it SparkNotes or other summaries), I find that skipping incredibly taxing books is actually doing a discredit to yourself.
Classics, and the books we are assigned in literature studies, are not necessarily the best books in existence, nor are they necessarily even within your personal conception of ‘good’. However, they are oft assigned because they have some kind of historical value – be it to culture or literary history. For example, you’re in your full right to dislike reading 1984, but a novel that has entire books dedicated to its effect on history does matter. You may despise James Joyce – but he spearheaded the entire 20th century avant-garde movement in literature, and that is significant enough to pay attention to. Furthermore, while classics may seem dry, and their words permanent and unchanging, another factor that makes classics “classics” is an interminable message that is applicable for modern thinking and reflection. Themes are often timeless, and the good books are the ones that tell you something about the essence of humanity.
To have this timeless essence, the novels must have a sufficient weight that will undoubtedly be harder to digest than just some five and dime book offthe shelf. The tougher the text the more reflective we must be when absorbing it; the more reflective, the more effort we must put in. We often get out the equivalent of what we put in, and books that demand more in will always give more out in return. Challenging books should do just that – challenge you to think differently, to alter your perception, to learn. Thinking reflectively about deep, abiding issues in humanity is not going to be a Sunday pastime like easy books often are for serious readers; the mental effort put in to be able to parse what it’s saying versus what it’s saying will yield more fruit than can ever come out of summaries.
Plus, there’s little more satisfying than pointing to a book in a bookstore as thick as your head, and saying, “yeah, I read that,” to the impressed science major next to you.
– Katherine Eckenwiler