Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Classics Revisited

One of my book groups (yes, I'm in several, who'd have thought) has quite a democratic way of choosing the books we read. So do some of the others, but not quite so well organised. Every other month we pick a genre (and every other month we just go with general fiction) and then make a longlist... and then make a shortlist... and then vote on the title online... and finally we have a winner! By the time you read this, we'll have discussed this month's choice of Miss Hargreaves (now WHO do you think could have suggested this?) but I want to write about next month's choice. The genre was 'alternative worlds' and the winning book is George Orwell's 1984 - or, as I should say, Nineteen Eighty-four.

Which spawns two questions for you to answer. I read Nineteen Eighty-four when I was about 13, and it was the first 'classic' novel I read, excepting children's classics. I don't intend to launch into a discussion of what constitutes a classic, unless Frank Kermode is sitting in the back row, but I know that it felt different - like I'd entered a new world of reading. First question, then, is can you remember what the first 'classic' you read was? And what prompted you to choose this title?

Now, that was about a decade ago (and, if you're doing the sums, yes - that means the supposedly futuristic-sounding Nineteen Eighty-four actually takes place a year before I was born). I haven't re-read the book in that time, and I'm a little nervous... I thought, when I was 13, that the book was brilliant. Will I still think that? Having read a fair number of books since then (maybe around a thousand, which doesn't seem like many at all, come to think of it) and having read quite a lot of classic novels, how will I react when I re-read my first? That's the second question - have you re-read that first classic novel, and if so, what was the experience like?

I'm all ears - get commenting.

29 comments:

  1. Nice photo Simon!

    I think my first classic was Jane Eyre, and I didn't get it the first time round - I was 11 and hadn't fallen in love yet.

    I am currently re reading it, and have re read it several times during my angst filled teen years and as I have gained more life experience it has resonated with me more and more and has become one of my absolute favourite novels.

    Some old favourite 'classics' I am afraid to re read in case I don't like them as much the second time round. Some books just fit so perfectly with a certain time in your life that I think some of the meaning they have for you would be lost if you re read them outside of that original context.

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  2. I think it must have been To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the first book I read for school not expecting to like it that I wound up loving. The first classic I read on my own was probably The Count of Monte Cristo, around the same time. I've reread some of Count of Monte Cristo and still think it's fabulous, but I've yet to reread To Kill a Mockingbird.

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  4. When I was eight, our family had dinner - pasta, I'm sure - with an Italian family we knew. The parents were to divorce several years later and the stucco house was full of their vehement arguments. This pasta evening, I saw an old copy of Romeo and Juliet on their shelves and sat down somewhere constricting to read it.

    The language was totally over my head - and I was aware my parents might not have been happy to see me reading material too mature for me - but some combination of the Italian architecture, the relational furor in the air, and Shakespeare's Verona made it potent enough to stick in my mind. Whenever the play is mentioned I feel a secretive and suffocating Italian thrill.

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  5. Gosh, I can't be certain, but I think my first was probably either The Hobbit or The Lost World (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). I was definitely more into adventure stories in middle school; there was plenty of time for romance in high school.

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  6. The first "grown-up"classic that I remember completing was Great Expectations, which I read for school. (I was 14 and in 9th grade.) We read an abridged version in class, and I read it a second time--in unabridged form--over the summer after that school year and haven't read it again since. I loved that book, but I've discovered that I'm not a Dickens fan in general (expect for Bleak House), so I'm not sure if my later experiences with Dickens would taint that first read.

    And BTW, I revisited 1984 last year for the first time since I was 15 or so. It mostly held up. I'll be interested to hear what you think.

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  7. Simon, I'm so old that it is pretty difficult to remember back to my youth. In my early teens I started to read a number of novels by primarily 20th C european authors (in translation). Probably Colette, Turgenyev, Tolstoy, Grass and Bellow would have been early choices. I exclude books and plays that we read as part of English at School.

    I almost never re-read works of literature, but unusually I have restarted on my collection of Colette. Of course reading her as an adult is a very different experience and oh yes she most certainly stands the test of time! Indeed she wipes the floor with most modern (let us say post WW2) authors addressing similar themes

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  8. The first classic I read was, like Rachel, Jane Eyre. Slightly younger though, I think I was 10. My form teacher said that the classics would be wasted on me, and this was about the only classic that I was SURE was a classic (I hadn't heard of Jane Austen). I loved it. The first part, set in the school I liked best as it resonated most with my experiences.

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  9. If you exclude the classics that you were forced to read at school (Jane Eyre, assorted Dickens, Brave New World etc) and also all children's classics ... the first one I chose to read for myself was probably 'Anna Karenina' - which was definitely influenced by the wonderful BBC TV series of War & Peace, but a shorter read.

    Then considering modern classics, when we read 'Day of the Triffids' at school, I then devoured the rest of John Wyndham.

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  10. I am in exactly the same position as you. I think 1984 was my first and my book group have chosen this for our next meeting too!

    I have never re-read a book before and am nervous about doing it - especially as I studied this one so much at school.

    I'll have to wait until next month before I can let you know what the re-reading experience was like!

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  11. I like your definition. Yes, I think that a book which is a true classic for you changes you. I must think about this a little more, write it in my book of scribbled thoughts.

    I remember lots of classics....It especially helped me to have a good teacher who could hold my hand and walk me through the complicated parts. I remember Huckleberry Finn and The Good Earth and Don Quixote and Main Street. I remember being very proud reading Don Quixote and thinking, I can do this. I can read this book people have talked about for hundreds of years. I can think about it, too.

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  12. Some really interesting 'first classics' here, everyone! And though I expected titles like Jane Eyre, I am surprised by some of the others...

    Jackie - you've NEVER re-read a book!? How amazing. I'm going go to have to do a post on re-reading soon, and might well ask your views...

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  13. The first classic I remember really changing the way I looked at 'classics' was Evelyn Waugh's 'The Loved One' it was funny and short, I was about 14 and it was the first time I realised the breadth of what classic meant. Before then they where worthy books that I felt I should read rather than living things I wanted to read.

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  14. I think my first one was Pride and Prejudice - what a lucky choice. When I was in the sixth form we had a discussion in the debating society on Half Way to 1984. So providing you know the publication date - not hard to work out - you'll know when that was!

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  15. I read Oliver Twist and Ivanhoe both when I was eight or nine, and I thought they were the stupidest two books I'd ever read in my life. On rereading as a grown-up, I found Oliver Twist made more sense than I had thought (but I still didn't love it); and I've never tried to reread Ivanhoe. Maybe I will one of these days.

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  16. My first classic was Little Women, a free copy of which was given to me when I got my first public library card. I've reread parts of it but haven't really purposefully reread the whole thing. That is on my to-do list.
    Meanwhile, I read Orwell's Animal Farm for the first time with one of my book clubs last year. Loved it and look forward to hearing your thoughts on Nineteen Eighty-Four!

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  17. I can remember a school-mate reading P & P when I was 11 and feeling rather sniffy as I was still reading Biggles! (In fact, just finished one this week - for old time's sake!) My first classic was Jane Eyre but I read it at such a tender age that I didn't get beyond her school days until much later. Dickens was very much a part of my early teens - the obvious ones. I was about 18 before I tackled War and Peace... TRULY!

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  18. My earliest memories of reading classics were books that subsequetly turned out to probably be abbreviated versions of the real thing. I thought I had read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn - until I realised that the Penguin editions were much larger. I'm still not sure if my first reading of Jane Eyre was the full thing. I read my first Hardy early in secondary school (Mayor of Casterbridge I think).

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  19. Oh this is the next book group that Kimbofo and myself run in London which many of the lovely London book blogger come to so we should definately all compare notes. I havent read this book ever yet, shocking isnt it, so can't say anything. The rest of the group probably could and maybe already have!

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  20. I think the first classic I read was probably Dostoevsky's The Idiot, when I was 7 years old. Of course, I'd read War and Peace before that, but not the original text.
    Then, of course, there was Five Find a Secret Passage.

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  21. I recall my Mum telling me that Pride and Prejudice was a very great novel, and sharing her copy with me when I was about 11 or 12. At that age I found it wordy, the language hard to understand and the romantic bits between Darcy and Elizabeth very vague and fleeting -to my young mind not really at all romantic. Funny, because JA is my favourite author, and P and P probably one of my favourite books now. (I believe JA is a true literary 'landmark' and a genius.) When I studied P and P a little later at school aged 13- 14 I got loads more from it and relished the dramatic irony and rich language.

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  22. It Wuthering Heights when I was about 11 or 12 years old. Reading it at that age cemented a firm belief in me that no one could ever be as desperately in love as Heathcliff was with Cathy. As I grew up and reread it I still loved Heathcliff but at least had developed the good sense to be slightly horrified by a good chunk of his behavior. Oh, to be young and naive again!

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  23. I was lucky enough to have a most beautiful edition of Jane Eyre in my childhood home. It was hard backed with wonderful dark woodcut illustrations. Jane and Mr Rochester with long lugubrious faces. The inside cover and outer side of the pages were also delicatly decorated. That got me in in and hooked. Afterwards I immediatly read it's companion edition of Wuthering Heights.

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  24. How interesting, Fancy Day - there is no character in fiction I hate more than Heathcliff. I don't think he loves anyone but himself, and the whole book is about the power of hatred rather than love... but this is just evidence of my very strong reaction to the novel!

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  25. As Simon and Jackie have mentioned, our book group is also reading Nineteen Eighty-Four for our next meeting; it has been more than a decade since I last read it (I was a late teen) and I am interested how it will compare.

    My first definitive classic was also Jane Eyre, read when I was around eleven; rereading it seven years later for Uni, I was irritated and need to reread it again to find out how I feel now.
    I also read Catcher in the Rye (definitely a Modern classic) around ten/eleven and, needless to say, I didn't "get" most of it but it made a strong impression.

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  26. In school... it was probably either Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies in Year 7 (unless you count The Hobbit in year 6). But I'm not sure we got to the end of either with our dreadful teacher and was probably slightly too young (though I still think of Lord of the Flies being excellent. That's interesting.) Of Mice and Men is the first one I remember loving and feeling a bit intellectual about.

    On my own... it was possibly Pride & Prej (unless you count dear old Watership Down). Both of those stand up to MANY a reread. I suspect Of Mice and Men would too (I know you hate it! You're just wrong.)

    Don't think I've read 1984 more than once, but it wasn't all that long ago. I think it's probably lost some of its impact over the years just because so many other people have now taken that concept and written books/films/TV series that are simliar but possibly more shocking. Still good though!

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  27. Reading the comments left by other readers I am beginning to think my school sorely neglected our reading of the classics. Though we did do a shakespeare a year, we did very few classic novels.

    Year 10 (age 14-15) was probaby our first introduction to adult classics. In that year we did (I think) 'Lord of the Flies', 'To Kill a Mockingbird', 'Jason and the Argonauts', 'Hamlet', 'The Hobbit' and 'Emma'.

    Of those, only Emma have I re-read. I really did not enjoy my reading of it at 15; a fact I which is in retrospect suprising given the way I had gobbled up Georgette Heyer books over the preceeding summer holidays. My experience of 'Emma' in that year actually turned me off attempting another Jane Austen novel for some time.

    I was 22 before I picked up a Jane Austen again, re-reading Emma (though in true book addict fashion I had previously purchased copies of P&P and S&S). I enjoyed Emma more this time - though it still would not rank as a favourite for me. Fortunately though, my experience was positive enough that time round for me to go on and try Northanger Abbey, which I love.

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  28. Pink Lady Bug - your school seems to have made up for previous lacking, with all those classic novels in one year! Astonishing.

    And does your comment mean that *gasp* you haven't read Pride and Prejudice?! Rectify immediately! ;-)

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  29. Pink Lady Bug - your school seems to have made up for previous lacking, with all those classic novels in one year! Astonishing.

    And does your comment mean that *gasp* you haven't read Pride and Prejudice?! Rectify immediately! ;-)

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