The reason I love classic literature is that I love words. Literature has greatly changed as the human race has become – how shall I put it? – lazier? Simpler? Obsessed with speed? Whatever you want to call it. The attention span required to read a classic novel rarely exists in today’s world, and here’s what I’ve noticed:
Classic literature was most often a celebration of words. A novel was more focused on the beautiful drafting together of one’s own language, rather than the forward movement of a plotline. Take Les Miserables for example – the author spends something like twenty chapters describing the Battle of Waterloo in painstaking detail. This moves the plot forward… not at all! The only necessary information imparted happens in a couple pages at the end of the whole episode. He paints a picture with his words, for the very sake of the beauty and imagination it imparts.
You would never find such a thing in a more recently-written novel! Modern books seem to focus mainly on the storyline, using words simply as the medium with which to execute their plot. Unnecessary bits are cut (even if they are gorgeously crafted) because readers today get bored very quickly. It’s all about action and romance and adventure and getting to the end. You don’t really need to write well in order to be an author; you just need a gripping storyline and a good editor, right?
I can’t stand it. I get so bored reading modern fiction, because I feel that it has been dumbed down. Even if the author had an exciting storyline, the writing itself is usually quick and to the point. Don’t use too many big words – God forbid someone have to use their dictionary app. Don’t spend more than a few sentences describing a person or a landscape – no one wants all those details. And long, drawn-out, philosophical discussions that include no plot-specific information? Forget it. How sad.
So I turn to classic literature, where you can find sentences so long you forget where they started, sentences so complicated you have to do a quick diagram in your head to make sure they actually work, and sentences so beautiful that you have to stop and go back and read them again and again and just take in the masterfulness that you have the honor of witnessing on the page. It’s all about the words.
It’s actually quite nice to find that when I haven’t liked a book much, it was usually the result of poor word choices (at least in my opinion) rather than the typical complaints of “too boring,” “too long,” “too dry,” or the ever-cringe-worthy: “too wordy.” (Nothing is ever too wordy if the proper words were used, by the way.) I was not a great fan of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and here’s why: I found that she was constantly repeating many of the same emotion-driven words, and her overall style pulled towards an unnecessarily dramatic flair. In short, it was overdone. Almost as though she were trying to hook readers with this overflow of tragic emotion. It seemed petty and forced.
On the other hand, Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities – which I have heard described as “long and boring” multiple times – sported some of the most beautifully crafted words I have ever read. I read the first chapter three times before moving on, just to drink in the power of what he had created. Dicken’s writing evoked emotion without the frippery employed by Shelley.
In Anna Karenina, the dramatic flow of the main storyline rushes forward in the course of a few pages, only to be followed by multiple chapters of political discussion, a man’s musings on fatherhood, or descriptions of the working class’s daily toil. The first half of The Jungle was filled with scandal and struggle, but towards the end, it seemed almost like I was reading a different book due to the change of focus to socialism and philosophy. Yet both of these books were joys to read because the authors were just as skilled at writing itself as they were at creating a story.
So, in honor of all of the great writing I have had the pleasure of reading, here are a few of my favorite quotes.
“The supreme happiness of life consists in the conviction that one is loved; loved for one’s own sake – let us say rather, loved in spite of one’s self.”
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
“In infinite time, in infinite matter, in infinite space, is formed a bubble-organism, and that bubble lasts a while and bursts, and that bubble is Me.”
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
“Man in his hunger for faith will feed his mind with the nearest and most convenient food.”
Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
“Are there not little chapters in everybody’s life, that seem to be nothing, and yet affect all the rest of the history?”
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
“Thus by tracking our footprints in the sand, we track our own nature in its wayward course, and steal a glance upon it when it never dreams of being so observed. Such glances always make us wiser.”
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Twice Told Tales
And, of course, the beautiful introduction by Dickens:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities