It’s high time to say that there are some classics, or so-called classics, in the world of fiction, that just don’t need modern readers to dust them off. Today, I’ll talk about how certain books lavished with praise for their prose, significance, influence, characters, or plot probably weren’t my cup of tea as I read them, and probably won’t be either for a reader today.
Which is to say, it’s fine to skip some “classics” in the pursuit of better reads. As I’ve said before, finding time to read today in a world of distractions is hard enough, so you might think twice before picking up a book just because of the critical receptions it’s earned.
What follows is a synopsis of some classics I feel don’t deserve their status. But if they’re you’re favorite book of all time, or if you really want to read them, great! Sound off in the comments about classics you feel shouldn’t be dusted off, and feel free to go after my own choices . . . after all, everything on this blog is personal opinion.
Moby-Dick (1857). As I mentioned in the post I wrote on not finishing books you aren’t enjoying, I slogged through Melville’s “masterpiece” last November because I felt the novel was a must-read touchstone for any serious writer, especially for one writing literary fiction. In addition, William Faulkner’s adoration of this book sealed the deal for me, a Faulkner devotee. But the plodding voyage of the Pequod and the frequent diversions Melville takes to describe all things cetacean made me quickly lose interest. Yes, there’s symbolism aplenty in the titular white whale, and the opening lines “Call me Ishmael” deserve the kudos they get, but to call this seafaring slog a “classic” is wrong.
Jane Eyre (1847). Thank goodness Charlotte Bronte threw the famed “madwoman in the attic” Bertha Mason into the second half of Bronte’s novel, because without the psychological and symbolic depth Bertha adds to Jane Eyre, I would have put this book down after enduring its tedium for so long. It’s not an awful work by any means–Jane is a fairly complicated character, and Bronte does a great job of exploring her psyche. However, there are far too many coincidences (spoiler alert: Jane just happens to run into her first cousin while roaming the English countryside) for the story to be believable, and on a similar note, many of the supporting characters, like the tyrannical Mr. Brocklehurst, fall into extremes of monsters and saints.
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940). After reading The Old Man and the Sea last January, I knew I wanted to get my hands on some more Hemingway. The brevity of his language mixed with the intriguing ideas lying underneath made him a rock star writer in my view, even though I had read just one of his novels. Then I encountered For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The spell broke.
Like the previous two entries, this work isn’t excruciating. But at least Melville and Bronte had semi-interesting protagonists. Hemingway’s Robert Jordan is one of the blandest main characters I’ve run into, and the initial excitement of this novel (War! Espionage! A bridge must be blown up!) soon fades in the Hemingway-trademark noun-verb-that’s-it sentence structure. I next read The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms and concluded, to my relief, that For Whom the Bell Tolls is the exception, not the rule, to Hemingway’s writing.
Follow me on Twitter: @ethan_nelsonwrt
See what others have to say about these works on Goodreads.com: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/153747.Moby_Dick_or_the_Whale?from_search=true; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/10210.Jane_Eyre?from_search=true; https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/46170.For_Whom_the_Bell_Tolls?ac=1&from_search=true