A Guide to Pretending to Read Literary Classics

By Lauren.C.Sarner.14@dartmouth.edu (Lauren Sarner)

A version of this article also appeared on the Page Views page at the New York Daily News:

Let’s be honest: There are far too many classics for anyone to realistically read them all. Many of them are long and depressing, or about subject matter that isn’t the most appealing (like miserable people making each other miserable. Or Puritans. Or miserable Puritans making each other miserable).

However, the status of “classic” lends a books a certain gravity that makes it awkward to admit you haven’t read it–much more awkward than it is for other books.

If you haven’t read that one book everyone is talking about this year, there may be raised eyebrows in some circles, but generally that can be forgiven. But admitting that you haven’t read a “classic” may threaten to destroy your credibility.

There comes a time in every reader’s life when she is put on the spot and need to fake her book knowledge. Maybe she’s at a job interview and they’re trying to ask “fun” questions, so they ask, “What’s the most recent book you read?” and all that comes to mind is the pulpy book she’s too embarrassed to tell anyone she read. Or maybe she’s meeting with a professor, or a future in-law, and the conversation takes a turn where she would seem like a numpty if she admitted her unfamiliarity with Jane Austen. Or maybe she has to dismantle a bomb, and the only way to do it is to type in a code that uses her knowledge of literary plots.

Here a guide so that you can fake your way through classics more easily. Warning: if there are any books ahead that you have not read but are genuinely planning to, there are some spoilers.

1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
The gist: Miserable people make each other miserable while brooding in the moors. (Moors as in the land. Not as in Othello).

The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Healthcliff and Catherine grow up together, fall in love, but can’t be together because of Reasons, so they spend the rest of their natural lives mentally torturing each other and everyone around them. Obviously this does not end with death. The cycle of miserable people making each other miserable continues down the line to future generations.

2. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The gist: In the Old South, the Compson family falls apart. Events are narrated in nonlinear, disjointed fashion, often in stream-of-consciousness with no punctuation, capitalization, grammar or spelling. For readers attempting this book, all I can say is good luck. For anyone who has actually comprehended it in its entirety, all I can say is mazel tov, and can you now please explain Finnegan’s Wake?

The real summary, for your non-reading pleasure: Four siblings–Benjy (the mentally disabled one), Quentin (the disturbed Harvard student), Caddy (the promiscuous sister), and Jason (the morally bankrupt one) experience the deterioration of their family and the crumbling of their world and ideals. For …read more

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