2015 Classics Challenge! A Look Back at a Year of Classic Reading

In January, I happened to come across a post from the illustrious Stacy of Pretty Books. She had decided (3 years ago, I was late to the party) to challenge herself to read 1 work of “Classic” Literature a month for an entire year and had dubbed it the Classics Challenge. Inspired, I decided to do the same.  It was not easy and it definitely kept me from reaching my “read 45 books this year goal” as I have become an increasingly slow reader the older I get, but I enjoyed myself and may try again next yet. I thought, since I just finished my December Classic, that I would give a little run-down and sum up the past year of classic reading.

Classics read: 12 (see full list below)
Classics I’d read before but figured it was okay because I barely remembered reading them: 3 (The Awakening, Prince Caspian, A Little Princess)
Classics I’d started 5 or 6 times in years past but never actually finished: 1 (Great Expectations)
Classics I thought I’d read before but actually had probably just seen the musical:
1 (The Scarlet Pimpernel)
Classics not strictly part of the “cannon” but probably should be: Well….

When I decided to do this challenge, I initially set out with a broad definition of “Classic.” I didn’t want to end the year with a list populated solely by dead, white, British guys, which, let’s face it, comprise a really significant portion of what is considered “Classic Literature” by today’s literature teachers. I did not make this attempt to discount the great literary achievements of England, and you’ll notice a number of English Classics on my list, but I did want to choose books with a diverse range of authors, genres, and literary periods. Because, I only really could work with works that were accessible via my local library (or borrowed from friends, or already in my collection), I don’t know that I fully succeeded, and if I do this challenge again next year, I can guarantee I will be making better use of Inter-library loan and will definitely be seeking out suggestions from others.

The Full List:

January: The Awakening by Kate Chopin: 1899, widely considered a landmark work of early feminism. I first read this novel in my sophomore year of college, but I definitely think it deserved the reread so that I could look at it through different eyes. My Goodreads Review

February: Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: 1919; One of the earliest works of modernist literature. I read this one because apparently I wanted to cry a lot, which is exactly what I did while reading it. And, when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. I specifically selected it because I wanted to talk to grandfather and no longer could. My Goodreads Review

March: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson: 1962; A novel by the uncrowned, but absolutely deserving of the title, Queen of Horror, Shirley Jackson. I adore horror stories like this one, full of creeping suspense and unease but little all out gore, and let me tell you this book was everything I ever dreamed it would be. Ladies do not get enough credit in the horror genre. My Goodreads Review

April: Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskill: 1851; It would be doing Gaskill a disservice to call her “a female Charles Dickens” but their works both fit into similar niches. Also her usage of “middle class dialects”  for her characters (and her defense of this use as it being a language used to express concepts just as much as upper class “proper English”) was remarkable for the time period. Initially I was resistant to this book, but I found it to be quite clever and witty in the end. My Goodreads Review

May: Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: 1861; I can’t count the number of times I had tried to finish this book and bowed out about a 1/4 of the way through, if that far. No idea why. I just never connect with this book. This time I powered though, and can fully admit I had been missing out on a quality piece of literature, even if there were some parts that made me remember why I never want to live in Victorian England (among other reasons). My Goodreads Review

June: Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden: 1982; I wanted to read something with LGBT themes for June and what better than the groundbreaking work in which the lesbian protagonists actually got to have a happy ending? My Goodreads Review

July: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh; 1945; I’m sure I’m not the first to say this, but I’m going to say it: What Great Gatsby is to the 1920s, Brideshead Revisited is the 1940s. I went into this one expecting something completely and utterly different than what I ended up with, which, as far as I’m concerned, suits the book quite well. Needs more Aloysius. My Goodreads Review

August: Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis: 1951; Oh C.S. Lewis. How I love you and how I loathe you, all the same. Someday, I plan to do a post on Narnia much like I did with Anne of Green Gables (in fact I want to do a lot of these, hence the “Rereading My Childhood” shelf on Goodreads), so I doubled up the Classics Challenge with my efforts to get that reread done, and hoooo-boooy did I forget how stressed this book made me. Seriously, C.S. Lewis, telling kids they can get too old for Heaven is just mean. My Goodreads Review

September: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy: 1905; Who doesn’t like a good superhero story? And, thanks to Baroness Orczy, we all get to enjoy them. My Goodreads Review

October: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, 1859; I wanted to read a ghost story for October. A friend suggested Wilkie Collins. I thought, “Oh yeah, the songs from that musical sounded super creepy!” There were no ghosts. Just a lot of fainting and evil plotting. My Goodreads Review.

November: Paper Fish by Tina De Rosa, 1980. November, like February was a hard month for me this year. November is often a hard month for me. I miss the huge Thanksgivings that we used to have at mi bisnonna’s house. I miss my cousins. I miss everything about my family. It often comes into this harsh, desperate focus in which I despair about being so shy when I was young that I didn’t really cultivate lasting relationships with anyone. So, I chose a novel about the Italian immigrant experience. It turned out to be immensely more beautiful than I even thought to anticipate. My Goodreads Review

December: A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, 1905; Another childhood reread, but this one charmed me just as much as it did when I was small. Well, almost. My Goodreads Review

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Powering through moments of Self-Doubt

TW: I wrote this to discuss a anxiety spiral I deal with.

 

I sometimes get these weird moods when it comes to my writing. I refer them as my “Fitzgerald Fits” because the first time I read a biography about everyone’s second favorite alcoholic expat author I really recognized a lot of his complaints and concerns (definitely not all of them, but…I’m tangenting now…) They’re something I’m sure every writer gets from time to time, though. Let me break it down for you.

  • Halfway through a project I start to worry about it, doubt it, wonder if it’s actually coming along the way I envision
  • I start looking at other things I’ve done and the poor response, low readership numbers, etc (assumed or actual, keep this in mind. Anxiety is a lying liar and tells me things sometimes that aren’t necessarily true.)
  • I decide, “Well, if I’m not popular, that’s okay. Lots of great writers weren’t popular in their life time, but they wrote works that stood and shaped our society.” (In keeping with our Fitzgerald theme, I often remind myself about how during most of his life Gatsby was his poorest seller.)
  • Then I look at my work again and decide that it’s not literary enough, serious enough, important enough, to stand this required test of time. I mean…A LOT of what I write has supernatural elements. Beyond Frankenstein  and Dracula how much of the cannon really does?
    • Well, Wuthering Heights kinda does…and Shakespeare…I suppose. Okay, I’m making myself feel a lot better, actually, wow…
    • But still, I start telling myself how I’m not like those great authors. My work doesn’t have those lasting, serious elements.
    • Well, at least my early work doesn’t. I’m only in my late 20s. I’ve got time to write my masterpiece!
  • Someone posts something online charting the relative age that authors wrote their first masterpiece. I ignore the actual ages and see how often it was their first or second book. Often it was. Anxiety makes me pretend that the nature of the publishing industry in different time periods has nothing to do with this.
  • Anxiety tells me I’m too old to write anything great or accomplish anything because I’m no longer an ingenue and the world keeps looking toward younger and younger people for genius. And, of course, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
    • I’m really close to 30!
  • The panic spiral continues for awhile until I decide to just power through the project I was halfway done with. I reread what I’ve written, decide to change some things here and there, but usually I do get excited about it again!
  • Process starts over at the first point at least two more times  on average before I finish the project, with other nuanced and project specific steps added it.

It’s a struggle that I think a lot of those in creative professions can relate to and I don’t have the answer*. I can spout empty platitudes about how you should “write the story you want to tell” and ignore any other considerations, but that’s not going to stop you or I for doubt our talents or whatever else we’re doubting. The only thing I can direct you to is the penultimate point, the one where I decide to power through. It doesn’t work for everyone. Some people can’t reread their own work without trashing it. I am lucky to not be that way (I think it comes from being trained as an archivist…aka another story about lack of fulfilled ambitions, but we’re not going there today)…most of the time. There’s something that works for you too. I promise you’re a better artist than your brain thinks sometimes. I believe in you.