The A to Z of Classic Literature Reading Challenge.
“But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” C.S Lewis
“‘Classic.’ A book which people praise and don’t read.” Mark Twain
To recapture the reading addiction. That was the aim of the 52 book mission of 2016 and it was an unqualified success, as I have waxed lyrically about in this post. But while I sit, smug and draped in my new self imposed status as ‘Readathor’, there are some nagging doubts – a tentative voice that threatens to shatter my reading illusions. The voice whispers malevolently, tauntingly: “where are the classics?” then further, chuckling dangerously: “where is the intellectual challenge?”, before finishing with the real belligerent blow: “call yourself an English teacher?”
A reading challenge can do wonders in helping to secure the habit of reading, particularly if it is one that has understandably been neglected in the demands of modern life. I would wholeheartedly recommend it and I will be setting my students a number of them this year. The rapidly expanding group #52books2017, is an exciting testament to the potentials of such a challenge, energising and motivating readers. There are, however, some reservations I have, the same doubts that I would apply to things like Accelerated Reader. The principal behind a reading challenge is to read quickly, to devour books in a race to complete as many as possible (particularly if you are, like me, of the competitive sort!) The consequence of this is that often you chose accessible over challenge, brevity over scope and often, modern over classic. Importantly it also does not allow for a huge scope of reflection, for savouring writing and for allowing yourself to learn and digest from what you have read.
So after powering my way through a myriad of different styles and texts 2017 will be the year of reading slowly. There is no imposed quantity, no end target to blindly fixate my way towards. The reading will encompass plays, poetry and novels. There is only one slightly intimidating prerequest: it has to be from a ‘classic’ writer. Therein lies the troublesome and contentious debate, what makes a classic writer? In the sage words of Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve in this essay, it is “a delicate question, to which somewhat diverse solutions might be given according to times and seasons.” Delicate indeed:
- Italo Calvino: “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”
- Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve: “The idea of a classic implies something that has continuance and consistence, and which produces unity and tradition, fashions and transmits itself, and endures…”
- Allan Bennett: “Definition of a classic: a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves.”
- Ezra Pound: “A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rule, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.”
- Richard J Smith: “First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them.”
- F. Scott Fitzgerald: ““A classic is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation.”
- Gilbert K Chesterton: “Classic literature is still something that hangs in the air like a song”.
- Christopher Smith: “”any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication.”
- W.H Auden: “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered”
- William Faulkner: “the pillars to help him endure and prevail”
So pleased we have cleared that up. So take a deep breath, here, after hours of painful agonising and reflection, is the definition of classic I will be using to inform the choices throughout the year: a piece of literature that has stood the test of time. Yes: that’s it.
Moving on very swiftly. I am approaching this with huge reservations, something about reading ‘classics’ speaks of imposed intimidating reading lists from dusty university corners and the sweaty fear of having to dissect them in a room of far more self-assured and intelligent people. Having just reignited the reading flame am I about to douse it gloriously by forcing myself to read “seriously”? The next twelve months will be the judge of time.
Part of this mission is to encourage students to join me in exploring ‘classic’ literature, to open up their perspectives to the ‘literary heritage’, something that becomes increasingly important with the new fixation with 19th century literature particular ubiquitous in the new GCSE specifications. It is also surely part and parcel of the role of an English teacher – to encourage challenge and appreciation of “the canon”. I will be setting up a classroom display which will track the writers read throughout the challenge, part of the research tasks for younger students will be to discover more about the writers. I will be be taking lots of opportunities to share poems and extracts from each letter of the alphabet explored and evaluate them with students. This is also a very helpful list of 100 classic texts and the A-Z of classic writers that I will be using to help inform the tricky question of who to focus on for each letter.
Progress will be tracked below, January will be brightened spiritually and emotionally by delving into the literary world of A. W.H Auden, Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, Matthew Arnold – the possibilities are endless! Any suggestions hugely appreciated, thank you for reading.
Matthew Arnold: ‘Dover Beach’: Powerful poem to start with and a particularly relevant read on on the first day of 2017: “Ah, love, let us be true/to one another”. The most evocative description of the sea ever? “Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling…”
Matthew Arnold: ‘The Function of Criticism’: Fascinating essay on the merits of the art of criticism: “a disinterested endeavour to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world”.
W.H Auden: ‘Tell me the Truth about Love’. Arguably the finest Auden collection: “Oh what is that sound that so thrills the ear?” Poems that all centre around love: from exhilaration to sorrow. Beautiful.
Jane Austen: ‘Emma’. Have struggled through ‘Emma’ at university I thought now I have reached my thirties our experience together would be different. Not so. Appreciate the character of Emma but just find Austen’s writing remarkably dull. Controversial!
William Blake: ‘Complete Works’. Dipped in and out of this during the B fortnight, ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ is full of powerful social criticism.
Robert Burns: ‘Complete Works’. Timed perfectly with Burns’ night, a wonderful excuse to have a Scottish day of Burns at school. ‘To a Mouse’ as a piece of persuasive writing? Done!
Charlotte Bronte: ‘Jane Eyre’. Absolutely loved this, not entirely sure how it has escaped me for this long! A brilliant combination of a gothic novel and romance: the character of Jane is wonderfully drawn and utterly believable.
Lord Byron: ‘Complete Works’. Another class B poet that I spent some time with over the fortnight. ‘She Walks in Beauty’ will always triumph – wonderful poem.
Simon Coleridge: The C adventure has started this week with lots of Coleridge: ‘Frost at Midnight’ has to be my favourite, a beautiful poem.
Chekhov: ‘The Duel and other stories’: Dipped in and out of this, ‘The Dark Monk; is absolutely brilliant and wonderfully disturbing!
Albert Camus: ‘The Outsider’: Very disturbing, but a fascinating psychological portrayal of someone who refuses to behave how society demands.
John Clare ‘Collected Works’: Some delightful celebrations of nature to lighten the mood in a rather dark themed fortnight!
Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’: Another novel I have been secretly ashamed of not finishing for a long time! Utterly captivating and so much to savour, genius in its scope and illustration of development. I fear I may be slightly obsessed with Joe, what a character!
John Donne: Dipped in and out of Donne’s poetry over the two weeks. ‘The Sun Rising’ takes top prize: “Busy old fool, unruly sun,”
Emily Dickinson: The winning entry for Dickinson has to be ‘Hope is the thing with features’: Hope’ is the thing with feathers/ That perches in the soul”. Beautiful.
T.S Eliot: Life has got in the way for the past two weeks! Read and was baffled by lots of Eliot poetry over this fortnight but that was about it. Will need to return to the neglected E at some point!
E.M Forster ‘Passage to India’: Guilty classic confession: struggled with this. Eventually after blood, sweat and tears made it to the end. Part of the issue was disjointed reading habits, found it difficult to track what was going on!
Robert Frost: Lots of procrastination from the above by delving into Frost. Love ‘Stopping by the Woods’: The woods are lovely, dark and deep/But I have promises to keep. Brings out my rustic Highlander origins…
Graham Greene: ‘Brighton Rock’. School holidays always help, but the challenge fought back with a vengeance over this fortnight! Loved ‘Brighton Rock’: dark, violent and fascinating psychological explorations. He wasn’t called “”the ultimate chronicler of twentieth-century man’s consciousness and anxiety” for nothing!
Graham Greene: ‘The End of the Affair’. Not much variation in the world of G but once you go Greene you can never go back! This was another wonderful read, powerfully capturing the nature of jealousy and obsession: ““A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”