Reading classics is a journey into some very wonderful stories, which become a lot more accessible once the reader breaks through the initial barriers of the somewhat weird-sounding language, the convoluted sentences, and the unfamiliar vocabulary. As someone whose first language isn’t English, classics can sometimes become a cause for frustration at the inability to understand. However, there are a few methods for beginners, and this one has been tried and tested by yours truly, so there’s a larger chance it’ll be the one to lead readers looking to get into classics to the best way to enjoy it.
The method is simple: start reading books in a backwards chronology. Start from the classic dated the latest!
Pick up a twentieth-century novel, and then go to a nineteenth-century poetry collection, and then to an eighteenth-century essay collection, and then to a seventeenth-century play, and so on. This gives you levels of familiarity to work with as you start out, because the language used in later literature is more familiar. As you work your way back through the eras, it’ll become easier to trace the etymology of some words, and you’ll gradually develop an ability to pick up on what seemed unfamiliar or difficult to understand before.
So, today we have a few books for you that you can begin with — two for each era!
#1 — The postmodern era:
For this, we have Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. The story is told through the eyes of seven-year-old Jean-Lousie “Scout” Finch. The novel takes on a very “innocent” approach to depict the racial tensions in 1960s America, and the various aspects of a middle-class white household during the era — education, play, religion, and values. Jean-Louise's perspective on the world as a young child questions the systems of law, racial discrimination, and “adult” secretiveness.
The second book that we have is further back on the chronology by a decade. Published in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger became a widely read, and controversial, novel on the effects of the post-war world, with its lack of “real” meaning, on mental illness, and on the lives of the youth. Holden Caulfield, the poster boy for the “needless” rebellious spirit of the youth, narrates the story of his dropping out of school and his journey through various places in the next three days.
#2 — The modern era:
Going further back in time, we can talk about James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, published in 1920, which is an adaptation of the classical Greek tale of the Odyssey, written by Homer. The novel — with its length of about a thousand pages — spans one day where Stephen Daedalus, Leopold Bloom, and Molly (Leopold’s wife) are supposed to be the representations of a modern-day Telemachus, Odysseus and Penelope. The novel is rich in prose, and satire, and is often considered one of the most successful attempts at a stream-of-consciousness style of writing.
Written closely to Joyce’s novel is Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, published first in 1913. It is a book that spans seven volumes, where the protagonist — who is never really named, since it’s first-person narrative — narrates his experience of childhood and growing up in France in the early 20th century, along with reflections on time, memories, and the lack of meaning in the modern era.
Both of these novels are written in the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, which is a characteristic of the modern era. It’s a great way to get into reading longer passages and non-linear narratives.
# 3 — The Victorian era:
Known for its terse social norms and growing class conflict, the Victorian era was a booming market for novels.
Starting with the later period of the Victorian era, we have The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, published in 1890. In this, Dorian Gray, a handsome youth, befriends a painter and an upper-class man who create a portrait of him which ends up being a lot more than just a portrait. The novel deals with issues of morality — a common theme during the Victorian era — and of guilt, youth, and regret. It’s now considered a classic in Gothic fiction.
Another novel, published about 30 years before it, is perhaps one of the best-known novels to readers. The Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens, published in 1859, is a historical novel that is set in the years before the French Revolution. Known for its realism, the novel is an impressive work of fiction, although it wasn’t very engaging to me. (And I’ve read it twice!) It tells the story of the Manettes, a family who was affected by the growing unrest between the English and French relations before the French Revolution, along with the society they are living in — a society riddled with caste conflicts, poverty and hunger.
#4 — The romantic era:
The Romantic era is known for its spirit of adventure, its appreciation for nature, and its leaning towards everything unrestrained — the gothic, the natural and the new.
The first novel that we will be looking at is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, first published in 1819. It was one of the first classics I read, and I’m absolutely in love with it to this day. It tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a student of Science and his experience with creation. It deals with themes of the God-function, creation and destruction, isolation and “fitting in”. With some very interesting monologues sprinkled with gothic elements, the novel encapsulates the romantic spirit pretty well.
Another work, which I read pretty recently, is Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen. Although Pride and Prejudice is usually considered one of her best works, this novel by Austen also possesses the spirit of young love, a bit of gothic paranoia, and the usual charade of “people going to each other’s houses” that was popularised by Austen in her novels.
#5 — the neolclassical era:
The neoclassical era writers were masters at satire, which was a frequently used form of writing — it showcased the writers’ wit, and their ability to use prose in a crafty way to make people laugh as well as make them aware of their vices.
One of the novels that is widely recognised as a popular novel of the era is Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, published in 1726. Written in the form of a travel journal, it provides insight into Lemuel Gulliver’s travels into the fictional lands of dwarfs, giants, talking horses and more. Each race is stranger than the last, and the novel is full of scathing satiric comments about the human race.
The other work is an epic poem by John Milton, published first in 1667, titled Paradise Lost. It tells the story of Lucirfer’s fall from heaven, the story of Adam and Eve, and the deception of Eve by Lucifer. It takes an interesting perspective on biblical events, presenting the fall of the angels from Satan’s point of view, and is a novel that depicts the rational spirit characterised by the neoclassical age.
#6 — The Elizabethan and Jacobean era:
During this era, fiction in the form of novels wasn’t as popular. Instead, plays and poems were the prominent genre. This era has produced some of the most well-known playwrights, including William Shakespeare. He’s honestly famous enough that his plays are known to almost all readers.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, and As You Like It, for example, are some of the plays that come to mind immediately. Shakespeare’s wit, humour, and his ability to manipulate the iambic pentameter (the meter in which most of his works are written) is impressive.
As for Christopher Marlowe, I can vouch for Doctor Faustus, which premiered as a play on stage in 1592. It is a tragedy which narrates the story of Faust, who makes a deal with the devil to acquire endless knowledge. The Elizabethan era was known for its hunger for knowledge, and its belief in the rational ability of humans — two themes which are wonderfully encapsulated in the play.
#7 — The medieval and old English era:
Literature available from this era is scarcer as compared to the previous eras we discussed. But, I’ll recommend two of the works I’ve read, which happen to be the most well-known works from these eras.
The first is The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer, written in 1392 in medieval English, which is significantly different from the English spoken today. Some versions offer a “translation” into a modern version of English. The premise of the book is that travellers are making a trip to Canterbury, and they tell each other stories. The book includes themes of religion, class, and satiric comments.
The second is Beowulf, believed to have been written around 700 to 750 CE, in Old English. It tells the story of the prince of the Geats, Beowulf, and his adventures up to his death. It has some passages of wonderful descriptions, and the limitation of words leads to some interesting choices of kenning words.
So, while these works are just the surface of the ever-growing canon of English classics, they can provide you with the skills you need to make reading classics easier. So, this year, make it a goal to read these, and you’ll find several stories that are enjoyable once you get past the label of “classics”.
ABOUT THIS AUTHOR
Mrunal Rajadhyaksha is a student currently studying English Literature in Ruia College. She is the head of the editorial team of The Ruiaite Magazine, and an avid participant in cultural festivals happening around her. She is passionate about reading, art and history, and the sea. She plays the guitar as a hobby.