Give A Book A Chance

We all know those books. We’re assigned them in some English class, have heard of them before, know they’re well-regarded, and are probably mildly interested in them. And then we read them.

And we ask ourselves what exactly is going on. Why are these books remembered? What’s the big deal? There doesn’t seem to be much of anything extraordinary about these books, they’re just…books. They don’t seem to be life-changing, worldview-altering, or even mildly interesting. We’re left wondering why this is a book that so many people regard so well.Classics can be hard to read sometimes, and we may never get it, but there's always something there to get.

I read a book like this recently, and you’ve almost certainly heard of it. It’s called Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer. I finished the Prologue and the first tale and was completely at a loss as to why I was reading this. I knew that there must be some reason this book was remembered, but I was genuinely clueless as to what that reason was. That’s when I remembered what W.H. Auden said.

He said, “Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.”

It’s a simple quote, but it’s something that resonated with me. Even though I didn’t “get” Canterbury Tales, I knew that there were people that did–and when they got it they realized that this was a good book. Canterbury Tales is remembered, like all classics (at least according to Auden), because there is something quite worthwhile about it. So I gave it a chance. I kept reading it, and kept trying to figure it out. I went to class still with no idea as to what the point of it all was.

And I walked out of class knowing, at least in part, what Canterbury Tales was all about, and why it was remembered. The point of this post isn’t to analyze Canterbury Tales, so I won’t go into detail on that. It was such an interesting experience that it reminded me of something that Sam Koenen, a teacher, said when talking about how many people read books today.

“Modern readers judge a book within the first few paragraphs. More charitable readers might make it through a few chapters, but ultimately, if the book doesn’t justify itself to the read he condemns it as useless. The modern reader assumes that he stands as judge over the book. The book has to satisfy him, because it exists solely to benefit him. And for most modern readers, if the book isn’t immediately accessible and appealing, it’s trash.”

I’ve seen this as true in my own reading. I’ll be reading a classic, not get it, and assume that therefore there’s nothing there to get. What Koenen pointed out to me is that that is an incredibly impatient and arrogant way to view a book, especially a classic. Auden reinforces the point by assuring us that classics are classics because there’s something there. He assures us that we won’t be disappointed when we decide to give the book a shot. Combined, I think that what Auden and Koenen are telling us is that we should give a book a chance. Even if we don’t get it right away, or at all, we should still give it a shot.

It may take some time, it may take some discussion and some reading of other’s writings on the subject, but it will be worth it. Classics are classics for a reason, and I need to remember that.

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One thought on “Give A Book A Chance

  1. I too have encountered this problem, mostly with early American ‘classics’, which I often view as overrated. When I read these novels (Hawthorne, Emerson, Twain and the like), my enjoyment and understanding of them is constricted by this presupposition.

    I would also say that another problem encountered while reading classics for the first time is caused by the opposite presupposition: the book’s perceived greatness and literary value. “After all.” Says the reader. “They must be more enjoyable to read than contemporary, non-classic books.” Unfortunately, overrating a good book makes it a disappointment. We must take into account the fact that a book considered enjoyable by most people 150+ years ago will not be considered enjoyable by the majority of modern readers, who wish not to be taught by a book, but to be entertained by it. Just as underrating a classic makes it difficult to understand; overrating a classic makes it difficult to enjoy.

    As you said, classics are classics for a reason. Even if the reason for a classic’s virtue remains enigmatic to us; it is still there, waiting to be discovered by the reader who does his best to leave all presuppositions behind, regarding the book as neither a dust collector nor a literary god, but a book containing knowledge in either content or form. When we do this, we can absorb this knowledge and let it shape our own writing.

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