Taking on the Classics

When I was in elementary school, my best friend and I were both extremely interested in the classics. Both of us were quite advanced readers for our age, and I mean that in the least arrogant way possible. Most of what I knew about the classics came from watching Wishbone, a fantastic children’s series from the mid-90s featuring a “talking” dog that explained famous classics at a child’s level. Each episode also featured a parallel story about Joe, Wishbone’s owner, and his friends who were involved in some kind of plot-line that somehow related to the main theme of the classic that was being discussed. I watched every episode and I bought all of the “Wishbone classics” edition books, and devoured them at every chance I got.

As we grew up, I was always very impressed by how many of the classics my friend had read and I pushed myself to read more of them as well. Actually, I found that the Wishbone versions really  helped me out in that sense, since I already knew the basics of the story pretty well from the TV show. Over the years, we moved pretty quickly from Wishbone to abridged versions of the stories, in the hardcover Puffin (if I’m not mistaken) classics series, and later on to Wordsworth and Penguin classics as adults.

It wasn’t until just this past year where my friend made a passing comment about how little he’d understood of the classics when he read them at such an early age. I’m talking about a person who, if I recall correctly, tried to read The Three Musketeers in about the third or fourth grade. Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to read and understand the unabridged version at that age, but it’s definitely a feat! It made me remember my own attempts to read full versions of classics before I was ready.

In elementary school, I got into the habit of reading just before bed and storing my book under my pillow for the next morning…at least until the bulky Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire made it too uncomfortable! Because of my love for Disney movies and possibly a slight competitive streak, I decided I wanted to read The Hunchback of Notre Dame. After all, it was one of my favourite Disney movies, so I must already know the story pretty well, right? Wrong! The book was definitely beyond my level at the time, and I abandoned it pretty early on, feeling very discouraged.

It wasn’t until my friend’s recent comments that I really realized how we treated the classics. Call it a competitive streak, but I’ve always felt a little jealous that he had so much more familiarity with these stories than I did. I didn’t start really taking these books on until midway through high school, where I made the very unwise decision to try and read Great Expectations for an English assignment that had quite a tight deadline. Once I started university, I decided to bring various classics, among other books, with me to read between classics and it was there that I discovered some of my favourites — and was often mistaken for an English major!

Somehow, I had always assumed that because my friend had read the classics at such a young age, it automatically meant that he’d understood them perfectly. I was surprised to realize that this wasn’t actually the case, but also relieved because it meant that my own failed attempts when I was younger weren’t actually that bad. Aside from the Hunchback of Notre Dame situation, there was also the time where I decided I had too many unread books on my shelves, so I would go from left to right and read all of my books in order…starting with The Good Earth, a book I’d picked up from a library book sale, along with most of my other books, and held onto just because I knew it was supposed to be a classic. Needless to say, that plan fell apart pretty quickly and the majority of those books have since been donated or given away.

Looking back, I have no idea why I assumed that we both knew what we were doing by taking on these books so early. Maybe we thought we were “supposed” to know the stories? Maybe it was an early form of book snobbery, or maybe it was just the allure of a good story. The children’s versions, and especially the Wishbone series, were great contributors to my love of classics now. While I wouldn’t say that I enjoy them all, I can definitely appreciate the majority of them much better now that I can understand the stories properly.

There always seems to be some discussion of what makes a book a classic, and whether the books that were classics from so long ago could still qualify as classic today. In fact, one of my GoodReads groups last year had a whole discussion devoted to whether it is important for people to read classics at all. I was surprised to discover that there were so many people who hated classics in general, viewing them as dated, difficult and mostly irrelevant to our world today. I think if nothing else, the classics should be seen as a product of their time and can give us a good window into the attitudes and ideas of the periods in which they were written.

As for whether they are worthwhile, I think it depends on each person’s individual taste — just like for any other book! Some people get sucked into the idea that a book must be read simply because it is a classic, but I don’t think the label alone is enough. Even the most widely read classic won’t appeal to you if it’s not the kind of book you’d normally enjoy. The only way to find out which you’d enjoy is to give some classics a try!

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