Book Reviews

In Celebration of Reading The Classics

The Classics Club is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a series of questions designed to tease out our experiences of reading classics.

Bookshelves lined with old books overlaid with the text In Celebration of Reading The Classics

1.  When did you join the Classics Club?

I signed up in October 2012 with a list of just over 80 books. I started off with great enthusiasm but got side-tracked so it took me eight years to finish my list. I’m hoping it won’t take me as long to complete my second list which I put together in July.

2.  What is the best classic book you’ve read for the club so far? Why?

It’s impossible to pick just one book out of the fifty classics I’ve read during the Classics Club project so I’ll have to pick a few of my favourites. They include:

All Passion Spent  by Vita Sackville West, a novel I keep recommending to friends.

North and South  by  Elizabeth Gaskell, the best of her novels I think

L’Assommoir  by  Emile Zola; one of my most favourite Zola novels

3.  What is the first classic you ever read?

The first one I can recall reading for myself is Black Beauty over which I wept buckets.

4.  Which classic book inspired you the most?

If we’re talking about “inspired” in the sense of “motivated” or “stimulated”, I can’t say that any of the books I’ve read fit that description. That’s not such a bad thing — it means I’ve not been motivated to become a murderer like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or take to drink like the main character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne.

5.  What is the most challenging one you’ve ever read, or tried to read?

I’ll take “challenging” to mean books that were a struggle to read. I failed once more to get to the end of A Tale of Two Cities . This was my third attempt and I failed at the same point as on the previous attempts. I’ve come to the conclusion that this book just isn’t going to work for me. I also abandoned Pamela by Samuel Richardson which dragged on and on and on.

The two playsMedea and Electra — were challenging in a different way. They were my first experience of Greek tragedy. It took me a while to tune into the language and understand how the plays were structured. I didn’t become a convert to this form of drama but it was good to sample a few.

6.  Favourite film adaptation of a classic? Least favourite?

Favourite film version? I don’t have one. I’ll opt instead for a TV serialisation. It would hard to surpass the version of Brideshead Revisited broadcast in the UK in 1981. Superb cast: Jeremy Irons, Anthony Andrews, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Stunning locations: Oxford, Castle Howard and Malta (representing Morocco and Central America).

Least favourite adaptation? Breakfast at Tiffany’s without a doubt. I had such high expectations for this but it was so dire I couldn’t even get to the end. Audrey Hepburn was wonderful as the party girl Holly Golightly and I loved the opening scene of her looking through the windows of Tiffay’s dressed in a ball gown. But after that it went downhill.

7.  Which classic character most reminds you of yourself?

Jo in Little Women of course. A very predictable choice and it’s not even a perfect match since unlike Jo I have never mastered the art of climbing trees.

Reading the classics like Little Women sadly didn’t equip me with tree climbing skills. Photo:

8.  Has there been a classic title you expected to dislike and ended up loving? Respecting? Appreciating?

What an odd question. I’m not a masochist so why would I set out to read a book I expected to dislike? That way madness lies.

However there have been books that exceeded my expectations. All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West was a brilliant portrayal of a woman in her twilight years who exerts her right to independence after years of being a dutiful colonial wife. North and South  by Elizabeth Gaskell turned out to be far more gritty than I imagined having only previously read Cranfield by this author (and not liking it).

9.  Classic/s you are definitely going to make happen next year?

I’m not capable of planning what to read next month let alone next year.

10. Favourite memory with a classic

Since I did such a rubbish job on the last question, I shall attempt to make up for it with a double answer for this one.

Favourite memory 1: Reading Crime and Punishment on a flight to the USA. About the only time a landing announcement was unwelcome — I still had 20 pages left to read.

Favourite memory 2: Reading Germinal by Émile Zola on holiday and getting angry about his descriptions of the poverty of coal miners in France. It reminded me so much of the appalling way my own coal mining ancestors were treated.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

29 thoughts on “In Celebration of Reading The Classics

  • Pingback: Classics Club Spin Delivers Arnold Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale : BookerTalk

  • Howdy. I hadn’t read anything by Faulkner in ages. So, I borrowed The Reivers from the library. So far I like it. It’s incredibly wordy, with every other sentence going off in various directions and then circling back. But it’s amusing too. I guess I plan to finish it. Neil S.

    • Faulkner is one of the American authors I’ve not had great success with in the past.

  • HA! Your answer to number 9 made me snort-laugh. This is a fantastic insight into what reading the classics has brought you (and a good reminder that I need to pick up one of the Elizabeth Gaskell novels gathering dust on my shelf!)

    • I made the mistake with Gaskell in reading Cranford first. I know it has a large fan club but I found it too light for my tastes. I much preferred the gritty social commentary of North and South

  • Very enjoyable to read your answers! I’m glad to see North and South as one of your favourites since I hope to read it before the end of the year. And yes, I totally agree about not reading books we expect to dislike – seems a very odd way to spend time!

  • Very interesting! I suspect Black Beauty was my first classic, too, though as a young teen we were pushed towards things like Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island ..

    • I know Treasure Island came later for me – it made a huge impression, so much so that 40+ years later when I came to read it for a course on children’s fiction, I remembered the scene in the apple barrel

  • I’m a mood reader too.

    I have Brideshead Revisited on my list, so I will have to watch that adaptation after, such a cast!

    • We watch it every few years and though we know the story thoroughly we still find something to discuss about it

  • I enjoyed reading your answers to these questions. I also greatly appreciate All Passion Spent and L’Assommoir (perhaps it was reading your thoughts on these that motivated me to read them). I’ve failed on my attempts at A Tale of Two Cities several times, but I still want to try again…I think I would do well with it if I were a part of a group read. Now I’m eager to read Crime and Punishment.

    • What a relief to find someone else who didn’t get on with Tale of 2 Cities. I’ve mentioned this several times to different readers and they give me the raised eyebrows reaction..

  • You’ve done very well with answering these questions – I found some of them quite difficult. I can’t remember my first classic as I read a lot of them as a child, but Black Beauty was definitely one of the earliest and made me cry as well! A Tale of Two Cities is my favourite Dickens novel but it does seem to be one that a lot of people dislike. As for question 8, I’ve actually read quite a few books that were outside my comfort zone and that I didn’t expect to like very much – and ended up loving them!

    • I’m curious Helen why you read books you didn’t expect to like. Were they on a reading list perhaps or chosen by a book club?

      • No, it’s more a case of wanting to give authors a chance to see if I’ve been too quick to dismiss them. For example, I read The Pearl by John Steinbeck at school and hated it – it put me off reading any more of his books for years, but knowing that he must be a classic author for a reason I decided to put East of Eden on my Classics Club list in the hope that my tastes had changed. It turned out to be one of my books of the year. Similarly, I had avoided Virginia Woolf thinking her books would be difficult and boring, but I wanted to see why people love her so much so I gave Orlando a try and found it surprisingly enjoyable. John Wyndham is another – I never expected to like science fiction, but he has become a favourite author. I would have missed out on so many great books if I’d dismissed them as not for me without trying them!

        • That’s a good approach Helen. I’ve done something similar – oddly enough with Steinbeck. I tried but failed with Grapes of Wrath so thought he wouldn’t be an author for me. But then got persuaded to read Mice and Men and Cannery Row, both were great. So now I’m encouraged to try “Grapes”and East of Eden

  • #Snap: I’m not capable of planning what to read next month let alone next year. O yes, me too!

    • Even if I were to decide now what to read next month, by the time next month comes along I’ll have changed my mind

  • Really neat! I need to do that too, though question 2 is really hard

  • It’s encouraging to know, by its being mentioned twice by you, that the Sackville-West is near the top of my TBR pile. I can’t say I’m an ideal Classics Club member, chopping and changing and never keeping up, so hats off to you on your second list!

    • I’m a long way from being a good Classics Club member given how long it took me to read my original list

    • I agree with you about All Passion Spent and North and South. Wonderful books. Also Black Beauty, which still makes me cry, but I passed my copy from the 1950s on to a grandchild. I never asked if he cried.
      A classic which influenced me – The Iron Heel by Jack London on the collapse of capitalism

      • I’ve not heard of that Jack London book, the only one I’ve read is Call of the wild and I’ve heard of Wild Fang but not read it

  • kaggsysbookishramblings

    I love a good classic so I enjoyed reading your post. And totally agree – why would you spend time with a book you expect to hate????

    • The only reason I could think of (after I’d written the post) was that someone was trying to work through the “1001 best books to read before you die” list

  • Susan Scott

    Enjoyed your responses thank you!


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