The Classics Club

Bookish Intimidation

Books from the Siglo de oro project list.

What classic piece of literature most intimidates you, and why? (Or, are you intimidated by the classics, and why? And has your view changed at all since you joined our club?) ~ The Classics Club November prompt

I’ve been thinking about bookish intimidation for quite a while. I don’t remember what prompted my first thoughts. But when I saw that it was going to be a prompt for the Classics Club, I thought I’d save it for then. Of course, I didn’t expect that it would take me to the end of the month to get to it!

Most of my life, I’ve not been intimidated by books, classics or otherwise. Perhaps this is because I had a bookshelf full of chapter books in my room before I could even read them, and my parents read to my brother and I from the time we were born until middle school or so. They are readers, so we became readers. Maybe it’s that my first Bible, that I was given in first grade, was the King James Version. Not much left in the English language to intimidate one after the KJV. (Full disclosure: I’m not sure I ever really read that Bible. But it had pictures! And I still prefer the language of the KJV.) Whatever the reason, I never found books intimidating. Classics were my diet of choice in middle school and high school. I read Shakespeare for fun. (Tip: see the plays performed first—they loose their intimidation factor that way.) A book might be long or might use archaic language—that just made it a bit more of a challenge.

But then I got away from reading. My semesters in college were so busy that they were not very conducive to reading; I was lucky to get my assignments read. And some of those were hard, more difficult than any classic I’ve ever read. (Architectural Theories, not for the seriously sleep-deprived.)  I fell out of the habit of reading. But something pulled me back. I started to pick up books, easier books, it must be said. I started reading book blogs. Books about literature. And I found my intimidations. Suddenly, I was learning about literature I only previously knew by name. Scary books, of streams of thought or high concepts or allegory and arcane references. Words that once held promise of tantalizing challenge now loomed large, taunting rather than tempting. I had found books to be afraid of.

But then came a challenge. O of Délaissé wanted to read Ulysses, she wanted to read it on Bloomsday, and she invited others to join in. I knew I wouldn’t read the entire book, but I thought perhaps a taste, just a morsel. So I borrowed a copy from the library and on the day in question dipped in. I realized something: these are just words. Normal words, obscure words, foreign words, words shoved together or placed in unusual ways, or with unexpected punctuation—but they are still the same building blocks that we use everyday, in speech or writing or reading.

When I watch TV I knit. Sometimes simple things like washrags or blanket squares. But more often, something complex adorns my needles: lace of yarn as fine as embroidery thread, sweater pieces full of cables. These projects can be intimidating to new knitters—they look so hard, so complicated. The truth of it, however, is that knitting is made up of only a few basic stitches: knit, purl, make. That’s it. It’s the combinations that make something simple or complex. Master the simple and build, gradually or quickly as you dare, to the next level, to higher heights. Reading those few pages of Ulysses this summer and I realized it was the same with books. They are only intimidating when we let them be. Rather than something scary to be faced, they should be a challenge to embrace. Some are difficult, but the difficulty is often only truly in the amount of work we have to put in to read them. Perhaps we have to work up our skills to meet the hardest. Or perhaps we just have to be willing to put in the time and effort to face the truly daunting. But books needn’t be frightening. They’re just words.

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12 thoughts on “Bookish Intimidation

  1. Great answer. I agree!! (Except for Hemingway. I’m intimidated by his books. I read somewhere he isn’t kind to women in his work. And I fear that’s going to wrangle me, and I want to fall for him and his words. Ergo, intimidation.) …

    1. Thanks! I’ve not read any Hemingway, save for one short story that I don’t remember anything about. I’ve read that his female characters are very 2D though. I’d like to try some of his novels out regardless.

      1. My two cents on Hemingway, is I think y’all should try reading his Nick Adam’s short stories. They’re really great. We just read all of them in my American Lit class this semester and I loved them! Nick’s girlfriend, Marjorie, is in some ways I think respected a lot by Hemingway. When Nick breaks up with her, she reacts with characteristics typically reserved for male characters that can be called “Hemingway Heroes.” She has self-control. Other than her, I can see how people would say the females are typically pretty 2D. But they’re still great reads!

  2. I’m more intimidated by the size of books that the subject matter. I tend to not want to read massive tomes. That probably isn’t intimidation so much as it is a desire to make that level of commitment. I know there were books in my youth that I was intimidated by, Asimov’s Foundation novels come to mind, and I was surprised later when I read them as an adult and found them very accessible. I haven’t been intimidated by classics of literature for much the same reasons you mention. I took to books very early in life and had good teachers that taught the classics. Once I could “get” Shakespeare on some level everything seemed open to me.

    1. Yay for good teachers! That really helps, I think. I know just what you mean about long books. I’ve typically been reading only one book at a time lately, so if I choose a long book I might be reading it for a looooong time, so do I really want to do that? If I can get back in the habit of reading two (or more) books at once, it would be easier to pick up the thick book.

  3. I am intimidated by modern Scottish fiction because the dialect is so complex and idiomatic that sometimes needs three readings to really understand it. Being bilingual does not grant me that I will understand every dialect but I think it also happens to native speakers, so I somehow find my intimidation justified.

    1. I hadn’t thought of dialect, but that is a good point. It would apply too to reading in a 2nd (or 3rd) language that the reader isn’t completely comfortable with. (I say as I eye a book I’m going to attempt in Italian…) I’m usually fine with the various American dialects, but some of the others are difficult. (A few years back there was a Scottish film released in the US with subtitles because of the difficulty for Americans in understanding the particular dialect.)

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