Intimidating books?

The Classics Club – August Meme #ccmeme

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The Classics Club meme for this month is asking a question that I find rather strange…

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?)

I don’t understand the concept of being intimidated by a book. For me, books I’ve read fall into two categories – ones I’ve enjoyed and ones I haven’t. Sure, there are sub-categories in there – it’s a spectrum that runs all the way from Wow! to Ugh! Occasionally, there’s even a book that I think is objectively bad, rather than that I just subjectively didn’t like it, but that’s rare.

That’s why I’ve always been happy to stick with the Amazon rating system that I initially used because that’s where I first posted reviews. It’s a beautifully simple system – 5 stars = I love it, 4 = I like it, 3 = It’s OK, 2 = I don’t like it, and 1 = I hate it. Totally subjective, not a hint of quality assessment in there. Of course, in my reviews I might rave about something that I feel makes a book intrinsically “good” – that it says something profound about the human condition, that it’s beautifully written, that it’s sparklingly entertaining. Or I may rant about something that makes it inherently “bad” – that the writing is sub-standard, that it peddles unacceptable ideas about race, gender etc.

But mostly, even when I’m praising a book to the skies or kicking it into the gutter, I know my opinion is purely subjective and that another reader is likely to feel very differently about it. That’s the joy of reading. I look on it as a collaboration between the author and the reader. Each reader will bring something different to the book and so will find something different between the lines. That amazingly original story I just read may seem like a derivative snorefest to someone who’s read more widely in a particular genre. Or that serial killer book that I find tiresomely stale may feel fresh and exciting to someone who hasn’t read as many of them. I can even accept (though it’s hard) that some weird people might like first person present tense misery-fest narratives! So long as you can accept that I rather like books about Martians…

So all of that is a long preamble to say that no book intimidates me! All of the books I haven’t read fall into two categories too – ones I think I’ll enjoy and ones I think I won’t. And I have no driven need to read any from the second category. Perhaps I’d have to if I was studying literature, but I’m not. I’m simply reading for pleasure and, since I’m unlikely to run out of books I think I’ll enjoy any time soon, I can quietly ignore the ones I expect to hate. No Finnegan’s Wake for me! I’m sorry, Mr Solzhenitsyn – my TBR will be untroubled by your books. Mr Eco, you had your chance and blew it. Mr McEwan, it’s not me, it’s you! Ms Woolf, stream your consciousness in someone else’s direction. Ah, Darcy, what a pleasure to see you! Come in, sit down and make yourself at home…

darcy sitting

Occasionally, I might read a book I suspect I’ll hate – Moby-Dick springs to mind – but even then I don’t feel in the slightest bit intimidated by it. Only three things can happen – I’ll be pleasantly surprised by it; I’ll hate it and quickly abandon it, thus removing it from my TBR for ever; or I’ll hate it so much I’ll have huge fun ripping it metaphorically to shreds! Win-win-win! In fact, now I think about it, Melville should really be the one feeling intimidated right now – he’s the one with something to prove… 😉

Be afraid, Mr very afraid!
Be afraid, Mr Melville…be very afraid!

My Classics Club list has 90 books on it, each of which I’m looking forward to. I may not love them all – I may even hate some of them. But none of them will ever have the power to make me hide quivering behind the sofa. I am steely-eyed and unafraid – a book-warrior! Go ahead, books, make my day…

Disney preferred the peerless Princess Dejah Thoris clothed too, thankfully..

What about you? Do you find any books intimidating?

55 thoughts on “Intimidating books?

  1. I love your attitude, FictionFan! Perhaps that’s because I share it. As you say, there may be books we dislike (or worse), or authors whose writing style we dislike. But that’s not the same as being intimidated by them. For me, anyway, that also includes books that discuss things I don’t know a lot about. As I read, I’ll either look things up, or let go and let the book teach me. I may decide that the author doesn’t know much about the topic either, or I may discover that the author is absolutely brilliant in her or his subject. But I won’t be intimidated.

    And after all, who could be intimidated by Mr. Darcy? 😉

    • Yes, indeed, I love learning through reading, not just in factual books, but in good fiction too. I must admit to being lazy about looking things up – I do like authors to tell me everything I need to know, but again that’s just a subjective preference. I know there are loads of people who love being sent off to google by the books they read. I do find quite often that books send me to youtube though, to see something they’ve described – like Megan Abbot’s Dare Me, which sent me searching for videos of cheerleaders in action! But even science books which often lose me don’t intimidate me…

      It’s the kisscurl that does it! 😉

  2. Well said!! I think the intimidation aspect is something we pick up from teachers early on. I mean, some of mine spent so much time analyzing the classics we had to read, sighing over the difficult passages, etc. that no wonder we feel stress just thinking about reading them. Your attitude is most refreshing. A book warrior! I love it! And you’re so right — a book is a contract between author and reader, with the burden shared between them. Even a beautifully written book can be panned by somebody somewhere. Sigh.

    • Yes, I think that’s very true. In fact, my Moby-Dick phobia comes from having been taught Melville at uni – the dreaded Billy Budd. I bet if I’d just read it instead of being taught it, I’d have enjoyed it more. I’m a lazy reader – I don’t want to have to work too hard to understand what an author’s trying to say, but again I know that’s subjective. Some people love the process of deeply analysing a book. And that’s why, even when I hate a book, I rarely say it’s actually bad – just not for me. Of course, there are exceptions… 😉

      • I find myself in complete agreement. I suppose I tend to blame the author more when a book is horrid. I mean, it’s the author’s job to craft a world readers can lose themselves in, and if that fails, how can we fault the reader?

        • Sometimes it can just be the subject matter that doesn’t interest me, but yes, most often it’s something to do with the writing or structure – after all, I rarely pick a book without reading the blurb, so in theory I’ve already decided the subject matter should interest me…

  3. This was brilliantly stated. I confess to having felt intimidation from certain books or authors in the past, but as I get older, that feeling carries less and less weight. Besides, I have kicked some preconceived notions about certain authors to the curb in the last year or two, so I know now that I was silly to be intimidated by them.

    Also, thanks for including a picture of the lovely Mr. Darcy/Firth. 🙂

    • Thank you! 🙂 Yes, I was probably more intimidated when I was younger too – not about the reading, really, but maybe about having to write an essay on a book and find its deep hidden meaning. Now if the meaning’s hidden too deeply for me, I just blame the author! 😉

      Ah, every blog post should really have a picture of Darcy included… or maybe Clooney sometimes, for a bit of variety…

  4. I wonder whether this notion of intimidation stems from the fact that part of the deal with the Classics Clubs is a requirement for members to write about the books on their lists. So while the books themselves might not be intimidating, the very thought of writing about some of them might be. I have to admit to feeling in two minds about one or two of the novels on my own list. I know I’ve got some quality reading to look forward to, but what can I possibly say about some of these classics that hasn’t been said before. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is a case in point. I feel sure I will love that novel (The House of Mirth is one of my all-times faves), but what, if anything, will I be able to contribute to the debate?

    • Yes, that’s an excellent point and one I hadn’t considered. I do find that some of the classics are hard to write about, either because, as you say, everything has been said about them already, or because I find myself criticising a book that I know so many people love. It’s quite easy to start thinking other people must be seeing something that I’m missing. But I reckon that so long as my reviews are only reflecting my own reaction rather than a specific quality criticism (mostly), then it doesn’t really matter if my opinion jives with other people’s. What a dull world if we all thought the same!

      One thing I’ve been reminded of very much since I started blogging, though, is that there is a new generartion coming up all the time. So even if everyone I know has read Dickens/Austen etc, there are zillions of people still to be introduced to them. So when I’m raving about Darcy or Sherlock Holmes or Gatsby, I’m kinda hoping some 14-year-old might stumble across my review and be encouraged to pick up a classic…

  5. I wouldn’t have thought anyone who follows, still less posts on book blogs would be intimidated by books, but I do know quite a few people who are intimidated by any book – how sad is that?
    Everyone’s sheep are someone else’s goats – look at us and Melville – and we’re related!

    • It is sad, but I can understand it more than readers being intimidated by certain books. I think sometimes it’s the length of classics that puts people off – though so much contemporary fiction is so ridiculously overpadded now, people should really be used to long books!

      Yes, I think our family is a great example actually – all four of us like to read and there are some books that crossover, but on the whole our tastes are all pretty different. You prefer the whale to my Darcy, for instance!!

  6. I was a writing/literature major, so I’m used to reading the classics. So I can’t say I’m intimidated by them (though I never finished Ulysses). 🙂 I agree that JacquiWine brought up a great point. I had teachers and professors who graded very harshly on critical analysis essays, so writing about a book would be intimidating. People who comment can be critical too.

    I enjoyed your rating system and reviews of books. The stars and Wow to Ugh work for me! (Loved Bleak House too. What do you think of Little Dorrit or Martin Chuzzlewit?)

    • Ha! There are many that I’ve left unfinished, but I blame the books, not me! 😉 Yes, I do think writing about books can be intimidating, especially for an audience who know the book well and are looking for specific things in an essay. It undoubtedly takes me far longer to write a review of a classic, and I revise it much more before posting, because I know people will have higher expectations than for a quick review of the latest crime sensation.

      I quite like Wow! to Ugh! myself – I should use that more… 😉 I loved Martin Chuzzlewit – just re-read it quite recently. He’s very rude about America in it, though! And it’s so long since I read Little Dorrit, I don’t remember much about it except that it wasn’t one of my favourites back then. It’s on my Classics Club list for a re-read though, so maybe I’ll revise my opinion…

  7. I remember having to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in high school. It was hard to get through. All of these years later, it is still hard to get through. It’s a story about a guy telling a story about another guy, who’s telling a story about yet another guy. Also, Les Miserables is just long and has more about the French Revolution than I wanted to know. Where is the singing?

    • Ha! Conrad has had a couple of mentions in this discussion. I listened to Heart of Darkness a couple of years ago on audiobook, and frankly had no idea what was going on most of the time. I put it down to my inability to concentrate properly to audiobooks, but maybe I was being too kind. 😉 It’s on my Classics Club list to read the paper version, so I’ll see if that works any better.

      Haha! I toyed with putting Les Mis on my CC list too – but… no singing? Glad I didn’t now… 😉

  8. Haha I love the subject and it goes hand-in-hand with those books people pretend to have read!! Like you, I don’t feel intimidated by a book because in the unlikely event that were to happen I probably wouldn’t read it!! I think it would be different if I was forced to write an in-depth analysis of any book, then I might be concerned but I don’t have to do that, I simply have to open it and see if I like it, or not!

    • Haha, yes! I love when you look at reviews of a book like Ulysses, and there’s just one word – “Brilliant”! I often imagine people boasting they’ve not just read it but reviewed it too! 😉

      Yes, I think that’s true about having to do a written analysis, but if I love or hate a book I can always find something to say. It’s the ones that come in the middle that I struggle with.

  9. What a happily thought provoking post! I suppose SOME books feel exhausting and energy sapping – so I can understand ‘intimidation’ in terms of a book which feels like someone talking very loudly and without any pauses to allow a question, a reflection – so perhaps I would rephrase that as some writers feel like they are a steam-roller – I tried, how I tried, with Lord Jim, which, though short, just felt like like loud no light and shade steamroller of a person and I kind of slid away, disengaged. But I completely accept that there is subjective response going on – for example, I find Woolf full of light, shade, beauty, nuance and humour – I do think Jacqui has a great point re the bogie of critical academia and how to write about a ‘great’ book.

    Here’s my tip for you with ‘Moby’ – if you need it, you might just naturally adore it, who can tell : Buy a small terrier sized toy whale – soft and fluffy would be best, otherwise plastic would do. Cover it with stuck on pictures of Darcy, Rafa and George – and then, and only then, start your reading. Keep looking at the decorated whale anytime you are likely to flag

    • Ha! Conrad has appeared in this discussion more than once, so I don’t think you’re alone! I’ve put Heart of Darkness on my Classics Club list – I listened to it on audiobook a while ago but kept losing concentration – I’ll see if I get on better with the paper version. My brother really likes Conrad, so even with him it’s obviously all subjective. Whatever happened to your 100 year challenge, BTW?

      Haha! That sounds like a plan, but what if nasty old Cap’n Ahab comes after my whale with a harpoon? I’d have to set Tuppence on him and it could all get very messy…

      • The Reading the Century has temporarily stalled – and its ALL your fault and that of other seductive bloggers. If all of you would only stop posting alluring reviews of interesting books I would be on the straight and narrow and at least into 1905 by now. Part of the problem is that books which I had ear-marked as TBR as part of my from A to Z marked out journey through the years got waved at me by bloggers and I had to surrender. Which means they no longer exist as part of the Reading the 20th journey. Oh, yes, and of course CONRAD was a big culprit – I fell over, in reading terms, sustaining multiple injuries -sprained reading joints and the like – on Lord Jim. I’m still doing reading physio exercises and not quite ready for the long haul – still mid-way through Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams too. He does go on, mainly in German French and Latin.

        • Well, I’m not as dedicated as you – I’d dump Freud and Conrad and find a couple of replacements that I might actually enjoy! I’ve stalled a bit on the Around the World challenge (though the hosts seem to have kind of stopped hosting it anyway! Annoying!) The 20 Books of Summer has taught me that I DO NOT enjoy reading ARC after ARC – need a bit of balance. So I’m looking forward to getting into the Classics Club (can’t I tempt you on that one? It’s very relaxed and like me, you read a lot of Classics anyway) and getting back to Around the World. Once the tennis is over, that is…

          • See what I mean, the dreadful temptings of other bloggers………and I have a Jean Rhys re-read a thon coming up, as JacquiWine is hosting that one next week, and well-thumbed copies from decades ago sit on my bookshelves. Always ready for the TBRR pile.

            There isn’t a LOT to tempt in 1900 for non-fiction and UK writer. Unfortunately the H.G.Wells I would happily have embraced, but it turns out that one site which claimed it as a 1900 publication was wrong, and it was in fact 1899. I can’t knowingly bend my own rules. Sigh. If ONLY I hadn’t delved a little deeper.

            I’m just on the closing pages of a book all about how ordinary people lived in Tudor Times. It’s probably the first thing that has cheered me up since Brexit. I can’t begin to contemplate how dire life would have been had I been a common folk person then. Either ploughing from 4.30am – 10pm in summer (if male) or endliess sewing, cheese making and building fires in between giving birth equally endlessly if femalse. Still, it would do the problem of the TBR nicely – I’d be unlikely to be able to read, and even if I did, certainly even more unlikely to be able to write, and then there would be the whole question of not being able to afford books, and there not being a lot of choice, even if I could do both. I am fittingly on the final chapter, and so to bed, utterly worn out by the combination of ploughing, scrubbing, stirring groats and keeping the fire going. AND it was well before chocolate, coffee or much else to keep one going…………….

            • How about Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Infidel? Sensation literature is so Victorian and she was one of the greats, I believe. And Churchill’s London to Ladysmith via Pretoria might be a good read – Boer War again so important at that moment in history and he’s a very readable writer.

              Yes, indeed – we do moan about our lot, but to quote Harold MacMillan (or somebody) We’ve Never Had It So Good! But I suspect that not actually being in imminent danger of starvation gives us too much time to think about how miserable we are…

            • Funnily enough, I did get The Infidel as my second choice, it was okay to begin with but I got bored with it quite quickly – it seemed to be droning on interminably. The Churchil…………I might investigate that one, and see if I can revive my oomph! Thanks!

  10. I used to feel intimidated (worried) if I didn’t like a classic, because I thought that meant I didn’t understand the story, which meant I might be stupid. Blogging got me over that, as we’re all reading for pleasure here. I don’t know if Moby Dick will be a pleasure for you or not, but reading your review will be a pleasure for the rest of us 🙂

    • Yes, I know what you mean! But don’t you think it’s schools and colleges that make us feel that way? Uni nearly put me off reading the classics for life because they concentrated so much on analysis they sucked all the enjoyment out of it.

      Haha! Thank you! I’m almost looking forward to reading it now… 😉

      • No, all my pressure came from my own insecurities. I left school at 16, and thought my opinions were wrong because I didn’t have a ‘good’ education.
        Miss S was complaining about her art class today though and said exactly what you did, that she wasn’t free to like what she wanted to, because she was supposed to analyse the meaning and forms of graffiti…

        • I’m with Miss S on that one!. In fact, the major reason I dropped out of University was because I was constantly arguing with the English Department about what “good” meant – as far as I was concerned (and I still believe this), enjoyment has to be a major part of it. I got so fed up with them making us read stuff that we all hated, and then having to write essays explaining why it was “good”. Somehow they didn’t seem to enjoy my rips… 😉

  11. I wonder if by “intimidated” the group means “are you worried this book is going to make you feel dumb?” There are so many classics written in such a way that in surprised anyone can understand them (I’m looking at David Foster Wallace and James Joyce). I’ve also noticed that when a reader loves a book no one else can understand on the SENTENCE level, that reader never really says anything specific about the book themselves…hmmm. Doesn’t it drive you nuts that Amazon owns Goodreads, but their star ratings are different?

    • Yes, I think that may be what they mean – and maybe there was a time when I might have found that intimidating. But actually I think books that make readers feel dumb have failed – so it’s the book, not the reader! When I read Salman Rushdie’s latest recently, I actually commented that though he showed off all his knowledge and intelligence, he did it so warmly he took the reader along with him rather than putting them off. Haha! Yes, I always like the one word reviews for books like Ulysses – yeah, I’m convinced the person read it! 😉

      It does! I suppose it would be hard for them to change it now, but the Goodreads ones annoy me – even 2 stars is positive, which just seem wrong.

  12. As a non English speaking person I find Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be intimidating. I always can read it Polish but with this particular one it just doesn’t make sense.

    • Ha! I find Joyce pretty hard a lot of the time, and English is my first language! I’m always envious of anyone who can read in more than one language – I can sort of make sense of French, but I don’t catch all the subtleties of it. So being lazy, I just stick to reading English translations.

      • Well, in most cases I’m forced to read in English (not that I’m not enjoying it of course) because most books I’m interested in reading I find about through blogs/YT and there’s no Polish translation 🙂

        • Yes, that must be annoying. The book blogosphere is very much geared towards English, isn’t it? It makes us English-speakers very insular though – we hardly read the greats from other countries and think all the great writers come from English-speaking countries. Sadly, I don’t think I’ve ever read any books by Polish writers…

          • Yes, there’s also fact that if there is an English translation planned I’d have to wait about a year for it to come out. So most of the time I just read in English. Well I must say most of the greatest writers do come from English speaking countries ;). Polish literature that has been translated into English is heavily centred around WWII as far as I know. If you’re into poetry I highly recommend Wislawa Szymborska:)

            • Yes, I know with the stuff we get in translation – lots of Nordic crime for instance – there can be a considerable delay, and sometimes they get translated out of order too. Not so much of a problem for litereary fiction, but extremely annoying in crime series. And of course you’re always dependent on the quality of the translation. I don’t really read much poetry, but have you any recommendations for fiction that might have been translated? I’ve been reading quite a bit about both wars recently so it might be interesting to read something from a different perspective… 🙂

            • Yes, this is something I’ve noticed over the years. So much of the books’ atmosphere gets lost in translation & you don’t really get to experience the author’s writing style for what it really is.
              I must say I haven’t read anything by Polish authors in a long time. I could recommend anything by Wladyslaw Bartoszewski and Miron Bialoszewski’s A memoir of the Warsaw Uprising

            • Thanks for those – the Bialoszewski looks interesting, and might fit in nicely for my “Around the World” challenge. I really must make an effort to read more from eastern Europe in general – it’s kind of a big area of the world to ignore! That’s what I like about blogging – getting inspired to go outside my usual comfort zone. 🙂

            • You’re welcome 🙂 I hope you’ll find his work interesting. Another one I can recommend (from a German author tho) is The Reader by Shlink. Another take on the aftermath of the WWII. Yes that’s great about blogging- finding books we wouldn’t have known about otherwise 🙂

            • Thanks – I’ll check that one out! I’ve done a little better in German authors recently, but mostly crime novels. In fact, crime is getting translated into English more than fiction at the moment, I think…

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