|“Reading” – Auguste Renoir (1890-1895)|
First of all, I was raised on the classics. I was homeschooled as a child and I easily went from reading The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables to adult classic novels. I was taught to read slowly and thoughtfully with an eye to language and detail. This means that I'm not at all disturbed when Dickens rambles about a dining room table or Hardy spends twelve pages describing the countryside. I didn't have to struggle in high school with reading long pieces. On the contrary, I found that I got behind from reading too slowly. I was trying to read my World Civ. textbook and answer the questions as if I were reading Herodotus. I quickly fell behind and I didn't understand how in the world my classmates read a chapter and answered questions so quickly. I read the classics because they are written for those of us who appreciate every word and slow build to the plot.
Oh yes, that slow build to the plot. Plot is important and so are strong and interesting characters, but I don't know if a non-classics reader can truly embrace setting the stage. I want to know the china patterns and bonnet styles, the way the fog treads across a heath in early autumn, the grimy-smokestacks silhouetted against a burdened London skyline, the rain loosing the earth of pauper graves, the furrowed brow of a frustrated child cutting her hair in anger... in other words I want the setting, the plot, the LIFE that breeds characters and plot. Give me details. No one sets the stage like classic authors, but some of my favorite contemporary novels mimic the classics in their use of detail (The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters to name a few). This doesn't mean that the book needs to be long, a good classic short story by MR James can describe someone's breakfast habits, study, or shoes and I have all the setting built and the character pegged.
I've now mentioned that I read the classics because they are candy for we readers who enjoy reading slowly and thoroughly and who enjoy description. But what the classics leave out is just as important. I may not have everything explained away in a classic novel, I may not see the intense sex that went on, I may not get each character prattling on to explain to someone the backstory... What I do get is a chance to fill in the blanks on my own and draw my own conclusions. I know that Tess in Tess of the d'Urbervilles was raped, but I'm spared a detailed laden scene. There may even be a heinous murder, as in Sikes murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist, but they way it is written isn't "exploitative." I feel like I'm muddling my explanation. My problem with some modern novels is that the characters are plot tools, scenes are rushed, and there is very little scene painting, but then there will be gratuitous sex scenes or pages of descriptive violence. It isn't balanced. The classics feel like they present happenings as they are in real life. Contemporary novels seem to rush through to get to the "juicy parts." I hate that. I'm a reasonably intelligent person with a healthy imagination I don't need it spelled out to me.
When it gets down to it, I read the classics so I can become immersed in a world alive with people, movement, and LIFE. Classics are skilled with nuance, treat the reader as an intelligent and inferring human, and focus on what makes us human -- all of life (not just the sordid parts).