A few years ago someone posted a book list on Facebook and I realized how few “classics” I had read since high school. I’m always interested in becoming a better writer and I think reading better writing is part of that. So I decided to tackle the list and read as many classics as I could manage.

Do you remember what Mark Twain famously said about classics? “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” I don’t know if it’s the choice of words that makes classic literature more challenging to read, but pretty early on I realized it was gonna be hard to make much of a dent in that list. Most of the time I’d rather read vampire books, to be perfectly honest. I had to make a plan. The plan for tackling the classics? Location, location, location. As in, three locations:
1st Location: The purse. How often are you stuck in a doctor’s office or waiting room? Do you have kids with tons of activities and find yourself killing time until they’re finished? I tuck a tiny paperback into my purse and read a bit while I’m waiting. I got through Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing in a few short weeks simply by reading in waiting rooms. (This play is totally hilarious; I love Kenneth Branagh’s movie adaptation, too.) Tip: check out Dover Publications Thrift Editions for classic literature at ridiculously low prices. As in, $2 – $5 books. And these books are just the right size for purses.
2nd Location: The kitchen. A watched pot never boils, so don’t watch it. I’ve found that you can easily read for 5 minutes here, 10 minutes there while something simmers or bakes. Right now I’m reading Oscar Wilde’s short stories while I make dinner, and I think Ralph Waldo Emerson is up next. Remember, the unwatched pot often boils over, so the egg timer is your friend.
3rd Location: Bedside table. Insomnia? Nothing cures it better than William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. And yes, I did finish it. There were moments I wasn’t sure I’d make it, but I did. Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! kept me awake and eager to read more, so I was lucky it was such a short book! Bedtime (and late night) reading has helped me tackle more classics than reading in any other location, probably because the wheels in my head don’t stop turning at night and reading is a great way to slow them down.
Why bother to read old books by dead authors? Lawrence Clark Powell said, “What makes a book great, a so-called classic, it its quality of always being modern, of its author, though he be long dead, continuing to speak to each new generation.” What strikes me when I’m reading books like Vanity Fair or O Pioneers! is that once you get past the differences in phraseology and vocabulary, the characters seem remarkably similar. People have always been the way they are now, and books that do a good job of sharing something universal about the human condition will always speak to us.
As long as I remember to keep my classics in at least these three locations, I’ll eventually make it through my reading list. What about you? Do you like reading the classics? What’s your favorite place to read?