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.