Ben Sledge 3rd August 2018
It’s impossible to have been a child in the United Kingdom without having been preached at about which books you have to read. While the classics often are truly excellent, sometimes they’re a pile of garbage. So here are some suggestions for when the classics just don’t cut it.
CLASSIC: Great Expectations — Charles Dickens
Whether you were forced to read this at school, or just gave in to the peer pressure of a thousand literary scholars boring into you from the depths of your bookshelf, if you’ve read Great Expectations then I really feel sorry for you.
It is common knowledge that Dickens was paid by the word, and you can really tell. Instead of short, succinct, emotive sentences to get the story going, he consistently lilts to and fro, making his work frankly horrible to read. His adjective to noun ratio is through the roof, and the slog through the seemingly endless pages of descriptions aren’t helped by the ending that everyone has already had spoiled for them.
Great Expectations is a novel that mirrors its title perfectly, the “classic” status that has been generally awarded to it by scholars and the public alike gives a first-time reader false hope, before you are torn down a mere three chapters in, unable to read another word.
REPLACEMENT: Q&A – Vikas Swarup
If it’s a rags-to-riches story you’re after, Swarup penned a far more riveting tale. You may be more aware of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation that goes by the name of Slumdog Millionaire, but the book is sufficiently different to be enjoyable even after having seen the Oscar-winning adaptation.
The Victorian Britain that Dickens describes gets very dull after having to study it every year in History and English at school, and Swarup’s modern India is a far more interesting and exciting setting.
Q&A’s protagonist Ram is also much more likeable than perpetually-annoying Pip in Great Expectations, and his modern trials are more engaging to a modern reader, who can relate more to telling their life story to a lawyer in a strip club after winning a game show than to being given loads of money by some anonymous weirdo.
That said, kudos to anyone who actually made it all the way through Great Expectations, you are more stubborn than us.
CLASSIC: War and Peace — Leo Tolstoy
War and Peace shouldn’t really qualify as a novel to be perfectly honest. While it is a greatly detailed account of Napoleon’s attempted invasion of Russia, novels really don’t need to describe uniforms down to the buttons and stitching to be considered classic. Tolstoy described it himself as “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less a historical chronicle”. So what is it, and why is it considered a classic? Just because it’s long?
Of course, you follow the loves and lives of some characters through the novel, but many simply disappear without a trace, and these loose ends can get annoying. This may be a stylistic choice by Tolstoy, to show soldiers falling off the map in the horrors of war and never being heard from again, but it’s still annoying to read.
However, if you make it through the four books that make up the “story” of War and Peace, you still have to do with two epilogues, which are dense essays in which Tolstoy debates with himself, musing on topics of religion, war, and anything else that takes his fancy. Really, Leo?
REPLACEMENT: War Horse — Michael Morpurgo
If you’re desperate to read a war novel, we recommend War Horse. Michael Morpurgo’s account of Albert and his horse Joey struggling through World War I is an emotional ride, and a far more engaging story than any of those in War and Peace.
Where War and Peace loses the reader in too much filler and description, as was the popular style, Morpurgo relies on the relationship between boy and horse to carry the reader through his (considerably fewer) pages.
Two main characters, one human and one equine, are plenty for Morpurgo to work with, and his dedication to their relationship pays off. The Great War serves as a thoroughly miserable setting, but the focus is absolutely on the characters that you care about, rather than uniforms or military outcomes or unrelated dinner parties.
CLASSIC: Wuthering Heights — Emily Brontë
The tragic love story has no likeable characters. Why do you want to read a book where everyone is, on some level, a dick? I guess that makes it quite a lot like real life, but aren’t we reading to get away from all that?
While we’re here, let’s stop romanticising Heathcliff’s manipulative behaviour. It’s not okay. He’s not a hopeless romantic or an old-fashioned gentleman, he’s abusive and horrible. He is physically abusive and emotionally manipulative to Catherine, his supposed “love”. Also, he kills a puppy! A puppy! That’s a baby dog!
REPLACEMENT: Wuthering Heights — Kate Bush
Great tune, greater dancing. Listen to this instead.
CLASSIC: On the Road — Jack Kerouac
Supposedly, Kerouac’s stream of consciousness novel defines a generation, but it’s just not that good. It was famously written in three weeks on one long sheet of paper, and you can really tell. It reads like a first draft, and not a particularly good one.
There’s no real plot and no real point to the whole book, unless the reader already really cares about the author himself. Due to the fact that it is common knowledge that the novel is a thinly-veiled biography of his travels, the only reason to read it is if you want to know about what Jack Kerouac did on his gap yah. But why should we care?
REPLACEMENT: The Gentleman’s Guide to vice and Virtue — Mackenzi Lee
Perhaps the most unknown recommendation on our list, Lee’s 2017 novel follows the trip of 17th Century gentleman Henry Montague as he explores Europe, his feelings for his best friend Percy, and who he was born to be.
The thing about fictional characters is they are most often a lot more exciting than real people. The Gentleman’s Guide is an exciting book, no doubt aided by the fact that Lee just made it up. It is also evident that she edited it a few times, and checked her grammar, something which Kerouac neglected completely.
If you want an exciting, engaging, and well-written travelling story, this could just be for you.
CLASSIC: Lord of the Rings — JRR Tolkien
The Lord of the Rings books, despite influencing all modern fantasy and being widely esteemed as a must-read for nerds and norms alike, are really unapproachable.
Rolling descriptions using archaic language combined with pages of poetry written in Elvish aren’t a great recipe for the casual reader. Yes, it’s great if you want an in-depth history of the elves and bits of lore that explain the symbolism of what just happened (which often symbolise events in Middle Earth’s history, not ours), but most of us just want a story. After all, you could have just put all that extra stuff into the even more complex novel slash history book The Silmarillion, or any of the ten history slash non-fiction Histories of Middle Earth.
REPLACEMENT: Earthsea Series — Ursula K Le Guin
Think Lord of the Rings, but readable. Le Guin’s series takes the high fantasy setting and runs with it. While the protagonist Ged is even more insufferable than Frodo, everything else seems improved.
In some ways, her refreshing take on fantasy is the polar opposite to Tolkien, especially in areas of representation in which Tolkien severely lacks. While Tolkien tells the tale of loads of white men, the inhabitants of Earthsea are predominately people of colour, and the cast is much closer to the 50/50 split of male to female people that we find in the real world.
The school of magic also has distinct Harry Potter vibes, so if that’s more your kind of fantasy then take a deep dive into what inspired a lot of JK Rowling’s world.
CLASSIC: A Midsummer Night’s Dream — William Shakespeare
Let’s be honest, Shakespeare was the Monty Python of his time. That is to say, the comedies are so thickly laden with dick-jokes it would make that kid from American Vandal blush. So why do all teachers, theatre-goers, and older generations take him so seriously?
And while both Shakespeare and Monty Python can be funny, have you ever tried reading a Python script? No, because that would be actually insane, and not in the least bit amusing. So why read Shakespeare? Also, the whole love-square that’s going on is quite implausible to be honest.
Even if you go to the actual theatre and manage to catch a semi-decent production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the ending is properly shit. They wake up and think it was all a dream? Greatest playwright my arse.
REPLACEMENT: Lords and Ladies — Terry Pratchett
The beauty of Pratchett’s 41-book Discworld series is that you don’t really have to read them all, which is definitely a good thing because who’s got the time to read 41 books? Lords and Ladies is the 14th book of the series, and parodies Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, resulting in a story far funnier than the original.
First of all, it is actually a novel, and therefore it is actually meant to be read rather than watched. Secondly, Pratchett’s style of writing feels so natural, like a slightly strange man telling you a story at the pub. Shakespeare, on the other hand, takes time to understand, and you find yourself reading with a dictionary open in case of olde time-y words or references to 17th-century memes.
This is simply a must-read for a far easier and more entertaining literary experience.
Ben Sledge 3rd August 2018