Why I Don’t Read Classics Anymore

From time to time, people on Goodreads or elsewhere ask me why do I focus so much on contemporary literature and I never read or talk about the classics. I have also seen comments on blogs I like where the authors were practically scolded for not delving into the great works of humanity and waste their time with the likes of YA, science fiction or thrillers. I don’t speak for other people, but in my case, the answer is simple. I don’t read the classics anymore because I’ve already done it extensively and I don’t feel the need to go back.

At the time I write this blog post, I’m 34. I started reading at 5 and by the time I was 12, I mostly read classical stuff. (In retrospective, this may have been a contributing factor to my lack of friends.) I devoured things like Alexandre Dumas, Karl May, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jack London, Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, you name it, I read them all. This was the time before Harry Potter, which I haven’t read to date, but I believe that I would’ve been a fan should it have been published when I was a kid.

During my teenage years, I graduated to things like Tolstoi, Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, George Orwell, the Brontë sisters, F. Scott Fitzgerald, J.D. Salinger, Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka and many more others. This was also the time I discovered the gems of ancient literature and went on to read Marcus Aurelius, Virgil, Homer, Ovid, Cicero, Plato and the company. I read Dante, Cervantes, the Canterbury Tales, and so many other classic books I can’t remember them all. There was no Goodreads at the time; it would have come in handy.

When I was 17 or so I started to delve mostly in 20th-century literature. This was a period of reading delights when I discovered most of my favorite authors. I spent countless days with my nose in Henry Miller, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, Jose Saramago, Vladimir Nabokov, William Faulkner, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Mann, Graham Greene, Elias Canetti, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and so many more. By the time I was 22, I was almost out of great names to read, and that was the time I started to read mostly contemporary stuff, with just a bit of 20th-century classic stuff in-between.

When reading is your main occupation, you tend to outgrow some authors and types of writing. I have a deep love for the classics and I believe they were responsible for much of my education, turning me into the person I am today. I’m not saying this lightly, it’s the reality. However, I wouldn’t go back now to reading Dostoevsky or Shakespeare. There’s a time for everything, and the time for reading things like that has passed for me. For more than 10 years, I have only read books written in the last 75 years or so, but mostly in the last three decades.

Sometimes, I find myself opening some of the books I read 15 or 20 years ago and read some paragraphs. It’s always with a sense of nostalgia, but there are so many other good books out there that I can’t get hung up on the classic ones, no matter how seminal they are. Life is too short and there are hundreds of books on my TBR, not to count the ones that are yet to be written.

So when people ask me the question about not reading and talking about classic works, I’ll direct them to this blog post. I understand that not everyone had the chance to read the classics when they were young and are just discovering how amazing Jane Austen is when they’re 30 and want to share it with the world. However, in my book, this is like saying “Have you tried Google? It’s amazing!” There’s an age window when you’re allowed to be super excited by the classics, and that closes just about when you finish (grad) school. After that, appreciation for classical works is all a person should have.

Of course, this is not to say there’s something wrong with reading classics at any age and sharing opinions with the world. I still read reviews of classics on multiple blogs and enjoy fresh opinions on them. It’s just those people who are a bit like converts and only read the greatest works of humanity, dismissing anything else as modern junk. Snobbish reading at its finest – that’s what I’d like to see less of.

P.S. This is an excellent blog post by Cindy Fazzi that sums up perfectly what a literary snob is and how it’s all in the attitude.

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Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain Review

quiet the power of introverts
Title: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”
Author: Susan Cain
Country: U.S.A.
Pages: 337
Year published: 2012
My rating: ★★★★☆

All my life, I have felt a bit of an outsider. I was the odd one out in my family, then at school, then at uni, and I still am at 34. Growing up, I had always noticed that I wasn’t like other people, so I was convinced there was something wrong with me. I then discovered that I had a lot in common with a particular type of character in books, and then with a specific sort of silent, creative, somewhat deep and spiritual people. I wasn’t broken, I was an introvert.

“Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured.”

I read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain in 2013. Even though I had dabbled in books and studies about introverts before, this was the reading that I believe sums up perfectly what it is to be an introvert and how the world perceives them. It challenges social behaviours and norms that favour extroverts. It offers advice for people like me who are highly introverted, and it was the book that finally convinced me to stop trying to act more like an extrovert (something I was doing without much success, might I add) and accept myself for who I am.

“The highly sensitive [introverted] tend to be philosophical or spiritual in their orientation, rather than materialistic or hedonistic. They dislike small talk. They often describe themselves as creative or intuitive. They dream vividly, and can often recall their dreams the next day. They love music, nature, art, physical beauty. They feel exceptionally strong emotions–sometimes acute bouts of joy, but also sorrow, melancholy, and fear. Highly sensitive people also process information about their environments–both physical and emotional–unusually deeply. They tend to notice subtleties that others miss–another person’s shift in mood, say, or a lightbulb burning a touch too brightly.”

This paragraph is a very accurate description of what it feels like to be an introvert. If you’re not one of them, it may be difficult to comprehend how the world around us puts a strain on our wellbeing, simply because we’re offered fewer opportunities to reach our true potentials.

“There’s zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.”

Most of the people who ever knew me noticed how little I talk. It’s not something difficult to notice because when small talk fills you with a sense of desperation, you don’t find gossiping particularly attractive, you don’t like to talk on the phone, and generally only open your mouth to communicate what needs to be communicated in as few words as necessary, people will indeed feel the need to hear your voice more often. Except I don’t feel like using my voice more often. Give me a blank Word page and I’ll tell you my opinions, but otherwise, no thank you.

“Introversion – along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness- is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living in the Extrovert Ideal are like women in a man’s world, discounted because of a trait that goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality style, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

There are people who can’t express themselves orally, and it’s not fair for society to treat them as less than. It’s not that we don’t have opinions or we’re not funny (some of us will crack you up actually), but since introverts don’t find it comfortable to speak too much in general and dread talking to people they don’t know well, the general consensus is that we’re boring individuals, wallflowers whose existence is rather pointless. This couldn’t be farther from the truth, and Susan Cain elaborates on the subject brilliantly.

 “Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to.”

Introverts have a hard time dealing with the fear of missing out. For example, I have only been on a night out to the club once in my life, and it was a horrible experience. When I travel, I only go to museums and other attractions where they sell tickets, and eat street food and very rarely muster up the courage to try a restaurant where you have to talk to people and have your food brought to the table. I don’t interact with locals if it’s not necessary, even though I find foreign cultures fascinating. I don’t have what you’d call a social life, and I have never stopped to pet a cute puppy in the park, even though small dogs melt my heart.

You would see why from time to time I’d panic over the fact that my life goes by and I am a mere spectator. The thing is, I am actually comfortable and happy the way I am, but society taught me that you’re supposed to do things a certain way, and I don’t always have the strength to ignore the noise and enjoy being myself. “Quiet” taught me that it’s all right to feel like this – accepting who I am is a process, and it involves dealing with a mix of fears and emotions that are often difficult to juggle. Being hard on yourself never helps. The quote below should be pinned to every introvert’s fridge:

“So stay true to your own nature. If you like to do things in a slow and steady way, don’t let others make you feel as if you have to race. If you enjoy depth, don’t force yourself to seek breadth. If you prefer single-tasking to multi-tasking, stick to your guns. Being relatively unmoved by rewards gives you the incalculable power to go your own way.”

 

Dealing With Reading Dry Spells Is Hard

Sometimes, life happens and I find myself without enough time to read more than a couple of pages a day. And those days are just depressing.

Take the past two weeks for example. I had to travel for purposes other than leisure and spend a bit over two weeks away from home. You’d think that a four-hour flight plus time spent on a train on my way to the airport would provide an excellent opportunity to finish that Amy Tan novel I started before leaving. Well, not so much.

First, it was a Saturday, and the train was so packed that I spent an hour smothered by people who travelled standing right next to me. One hour of having to listen all about the hen-do the girls were on their way to. No chance to read.

Next, the plane. When you are heading to the boarding gate, you kind of expect to see and hear screaming kids, but being seated near more than one plus a guy who liked to bite his nails for hours can truly damage one’s reading libido.

Finally, on my destination, I find out that the AirBnB flat I have to spend two weeks in has no other lights than the ceiling ones and god knows how I feel about reading in that kind of light. All in all, not a reading-friendly escape, and I can’t wait for it to be over. My reading spot waits for me at home and it’s the thing that keeps me sane. Just eight more days – I’ll be lucky if I finish the novel I started.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson Review

 

oranges are not the only fruit
Title: “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit”
Author: Jeanette Winterson
Country: United Kingdom
Pages: 176
Year published: 1985
My rating: ★★★★☆

A coming-of-age and coming-out story at the same time, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit held me captive for two evenings in November last year. The semi-biographical work of fiction is short but packed with fantastical stories and bitter-sweet memories.

Young Jeanette is growing up in a Pentecostal household in the dreary Midlands in the ’60s. Few circumstances could provide a worse start in life for a girl who doesn’t truly believe in God, is gay, and wants an education. Coming to terms with her sexuality and the way she’s different from most of the girls her age is challenging, but somehow Jeanette manages to remain sane and ends up finding her own way.

Jeanette’s upbringing is often what leads to destroyed souls ad crashed dreams, so I admired the semi-fictional character for her strength. It’s really something to go to Oxford and become a world-famous writer after you’ve had to overcome your mother and church condemning you for your “unnatural passions. The pressures of conformity are nasty anytime, but the 60’s were truly harsh for this kind of business.

Nevertheless, the book is poetic and funny at times, and it involves a funeral parlour and an ice-cream van. Not your typical coming-of-age story, but still something you’ll have a hard time forgetting.

“I have a theory that every time you make an important choice, the part of you left behind continues the other life you could have had.”

Young Jeanette has a hard time making choices in a world where no one is keen to validate anything that’s unconventional.

“Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.”

And of course, she is aware that her life is going to be a difficult one, so she embraces any form of escapism that’s within her reach. She also has a rather odd relationship with God, particularly for someone whose mother arranged an exorcism for her at 16 when she found out she might be gay.

“I miss God. I miss the company of someone utterly loyal. I still don’t think of God as my betrayer. The servants of God, yes, but servants by their very nature betray. I miss God who was my friend. I don’t even know if God exists, but I do know that if God is your emotional role model, very few human relationships will match up to it.”

Next Winterson book on my list is “Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal,” another semi-biographical work that I hope will get me on another fascinating ride into Jeanette’s mind.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang Review

the vegetarian han kang
Title: The Vegetarian (Original Title Chaesikjuuija)
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Country: South Korea
Pages: 188
Year published: 2007
My rating: ★★★★☆

It is rare to read a novel so visceral you feel it physically. Han Kang’s The Vegetarian does this and more, transporting the reader into a world where the senses are confused and the psyche is tormented.

I read this book in one sitting, even though I hadn’t planned to do so. Provocative and captivating, this three-part South Korean work of fiction is not for the faint of heart and is surely something else entirely for English-speaking readers who may not do well with such powerful imagery.

Yeong-hye is an apparently ordinary woman whose sole quirk is that she never wears a bra. She’s plain, uninteresting, and married to a man who goes to work, comes back, expects to have his food on the table, and doesn’t care much about anything.

One night, Yeong-hye has a hallucinating dream and decides to become a strict vegetarian. She throws away all the expensive cuts of meat from the freezer, and her life slowly fades away as she leads a tree-like existence.

Of course, her decision to purge her mind and renounce meat has all kinds of repercussions. In a traditional society like the South Korean one, where women are expected to do as they’re told and live the lives their mothers and grandmothers lived before them, standing out from the crowd is not permissible. The odd and tragic consequences of her gesture make the novel read like a mute protest against a traditional society that suppresses the soul and denies any chance at transformation.

“The feeling that she had never really lived in this world caught her by surprise. It was a fact. She had never lived. Even as a child, as far back as she could remember, she had done nothing but endure. She had believed in her own inherent goodness, her humanity, and lived accordingly, never causing anyone harm. Her devotion to doing things the right way had been unflagging, all her successes had depended on it, and she would have gone on like that indefinitely. She didn’t understand why, but faced with those decaying buildings and straggling grasses, she was nothing but a child who had never lived.”

Obsession, violence, and raw sexuality are omnipresent in the book, which reminded me of the sensations Elfriede Jelinek’s The Pianist showered over me. 

Animal eyes gleaming wild, the presence of blood, unearthed skull, again those eyes. Rising up from the pit of my stomach. Shuddering awake, my hands, need to see my hands. Breathe. My fingernails still soft, my teeth still gentle. Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts, nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening – what I am going to gouge?

Besides being a novel about a women’s breaking away with tradition, The Vegetarian is also about the pain and complexity of having to live in a world where no one truly gets you. The lack of the family’s understanding of Yeong-hye’s mental troubles is astounding. They don’t even pity her, they don’t offer help but instead react violently with their sole purpose being reverting Yeong-hye to her original, submissive state. 

The Vegetarian is a short novel that you won’t forget too quickly. I read reviews from people who couldn’t bear the way Han Kang infiltrates into the depths of the human mind, and others who couldn’t cope with the violent images. It is indeed a powerful work of fiction that is not meant to be comfortable. It is full of nuances that may elude some readers, but in the end, it is shocking in a way only books stroked by genius are.