The Classic Question: Why Fake It?


I love the anachronistic feel of reading an old book on an e-reader, not that I’ve read Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (pictured above).  It’s a “classic,” at least under Mark Twain’s sassy definition of the term: “Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

According to the Huffington Post, Moby Dick is one of the books to pretend to have read (“Book Summaries: 7 Things To Say About Books You’ve Never Read”).  Their list includes:  Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Of these books, I have read only three (of which I loved two): Taming of the Shrew, The Grapes of Wrath, and Slaughterhouse Five.  I admit to my failing grade (43%) without any shame (also knowing that I would probably do better or worse on other lists).  I read more than two novels per week, and entertaining contemporary selections are far more appealing to me than anything by Faulkner or Hemingway.

Apparently, I am not alone in my disinterest in so-called classics, which makes me wonder: if these books are worthy of crib sheets because many otherwise literate people don’t want to read them, then should they be called classics?  What qualities render a novel a classic?

To me, a classic novel has two main features: the novel can be read and enjoyed by people of disparate backgrounds and experiences, and the novel expresses themes that will resonate with a wide audience over time.  The seven books above might have timeless themes, but these novels cannot resonate with future audiences if few want to read them and even fewer will appreciate them.  Of course, high school and intro college English classes will continue to foist these novels on a certain percentage of young readers, thereby making the label “classic” synonymous with “boring” for generations to come.

For anyone interested in reading these novels of their own volition, Amazon and Barnes & Noble have made it easy by making the ebooks affordable, though I think I’ll pass (for now).  I may be able to download Moby Dick for free on Kindle, but simply put, “I would prefer not to.”

When I’m in the mood for a classic, I would rather re-read Jane Austen than read many other classics for the first time, and I’m not going to lie about it.  

13 thoughts on “The Classic Question: Why Fake It?

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  4. I used to devour classics when I was younger – Joyce, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Graham Greene – but rarely do so these days. I wonder why that is? (Can you leave an Amazon review on ‘Crime and Punishment’ I wonder?)
    Is it perhaps that the contemporary novel tends to move along quickly, in tune with our times? The classics tend to flow and unwind slowly and one needs to make an effort to relax into them. I was recently lent Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’ and felt that I didn’t do it justice somehow – it was meant to be read in a different era.
    So I suppose I am faking it really. I can airily espouse about ‘Ulysses’ for example though it’s thirty years since I picked the thing up.

    AMB – give Dickens another go but maybe ease into it via ‘A Muppet Christmas Carol’.

    1. It’s interesting that your inclination to read the classics has changed over time. Now would be a good time to pick them up again (and try new ones) because the ebooks are often so inexpensive (and sometimes free, as it seems Crime and Punishment is for Kindle). You actually can review these books on Amazon, and people say some funny things about these supposedly “timeless” books. I may give Dickens another shot, but there is so little time to read all the books that are already on my list!

  5. Hmm, I’ve read Slaughterhouse Five, Moby Dick, Taming of the Shrew, and Middlemarch. I’ve read parts of the others – mostly the first parts. I loved Slaughterhouse and liked Midlemarch and Shrew well enough. The others seem to be speaking to an audience that has moved on.

    I’m afraid I can’t go with you to the Jane Austen Fan Club meetings, though. I’ve always found her a bit dull. If I were to pick from the same general regions in time and space I’d have to go with Emily Bronte or Dickens.

    1. That’s pretty good! Jane Austen fans seem to be divided by gender, although I do know a few men who seem to enjoy her novels. I’d be interested in a Bronte club, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near Dickens! I read Great Expectations about a thousand years ago in high school, and I’m reluctant to give his work another chance.

      1. I’d recommend Bleak House as a good “getting into Dickens” novel. It’s a bit more accessible and less prone to tastes than his other work.

        Also, I have to admit that Emily Bronte is on my list of favorites soley on the strength of Wuthering Heights. I never did care for her poetry.

  6. My mother was a member of the Jane Austen Society for 25 years. Once a week, she met with other women and while they did their darning and mending, they passed a Jane Austen novel around the group and read aloud. Sounds so quaint now, doesn’t it?

    I think I’d enjoy it, however. But where oh where could I find such a group of women?

  7. Your failing grade makes mine look like a nuclear disaster. I have read but one—slaughter house five—and seen the movie adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath ih HS…yes they had films back then. However, a “recent” classic, if I may call it so…The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo is half read on my Nook and I’m enjoying it. Still, I’m with you…just cause I can download it for cheap/free doesn’t mean I’ll be picking up the classics anytime soon. But when I finish my first novel….now that’s another download question….

    1. It’s nice to be able to get the classics for free or close to it, but yeah, I also doubt I’ll be reading them anytime soon! My husband started “Moby Dick” a few weeks ago, but he has taken a break from it to read a number of contemporary books.

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