Book guilt and the classics: how to get rid of that feeling.

book guilt

You must be familiar with that feeling that haunts you every time you’re thinking of starting a new book. The feeling that your choice means some other book will have to remain unread… The doubt whether you have made the right decision on how to spend reading time. It is pure book guilt and is paralyzing enough to make you give up reading altogether. The “so little time so many books” syndrome can either turn you to a compulsive reader or a non-reader at all.

How can we beat that fear of missing out and indulge in the reading process per se which is immune to what you’ ve read so far and what will follow? How about enjoying some book pride for a change and every time the toxic thought tries to settle we focus on the book we are reading and not on the others who line up and crave our attention?

It won’t happen overnight, if it is to happen at all. A true literature lover will always struggle between book choices and not-enough time, so, what I suggest is to be pragmatic, accept the fact as a… fatal condition and adopt an irreverent attitude even to the masters -and monsters- of literature.

What follows is a list of my alibis for not having read some 19th & early 20th century classics, for having read others instead and how I suggest we should cope with book guilt. The list is partial and conceals my true embarassment in not having read some important french classic literature (Zola, Stendhal, Balzac, De Maupassant) to the extent i would like. Any advice on that?

11 classics and how to deal with book guilt

Charles Dickens

You know the opening lines of “A tale of two cities” (1859) by heart “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”, but this is as far you’ ve got. You’ ve read Oliver Twist  as a junior but then again you were only reading for plot. And you tried “Great Expectations” after you had seen the movie but Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke kept messing in the pages and you couldn’t feel the original characters. You can always discard him as too Victorian or too Dickens to buy you some time but your chances are you will read “Bleak House” to find its two volumes actually poor for its… 157 characters.

Jane Austen

“Pride and Prejudice” (1813), “Sense and Sensibility”, “Emma”, “Mansfield Park” are such household names you can’t even remember if you’ ve read them as a child or seen them in film or have “met” them in every other genre they inspired. You can discard Jane Austen as too Georgian, too marriage-obsessed (although single herself); but can you really? Can you resist reading a novel which begins “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” and hosts the character of Mr. Benett, the father of the four daughters who, when his wife reprimands him “you have not compassion for my poor nerves” he answers  “you mistake me my dear, I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends”. So if you must settle with one of her books, go for “Pride and Prejudice”. But, chances are you’ll look for the rest.

George Eliot

It’s not that you didn’t try “Middlemarch” (1871). You did but reading Middlemarch is rereading some sentences for three times to grasp the meaning- and still having doubts. A book even Henry James who worshipped George Eliot called obscure and philosophical: “The author wishes to say too many things and to say them too well”. Of course, he loved it. But he didn’t have to wake up at 7.00 o’clock in the morning to go to work.

Mark Twain

You’ ve devoured his writing tips and witticisms but not much of his fiction. And then you have Ernest Hemingway naming “The adventures of Huckleberry Fin” (1884) as the definitive American masterpiece:“All modern American literature comes from that book. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” Mark Twain was discarded as a humorist and definitely not a literary product by his peer critics but was soon  to be considered the ultimate American novelist. So not to have read Huckleberry Fin is one thing. But how can you defy Papa Hemingway ?

Henry James

I am afraid there is little one can say in your defense for not having read anything Henry James. “The Portrait of a lady” (1881) is unparalleled in making Isabel Archer such a vivid and three-dimensional character facing her destiny and James’s prose and rendering of detail, both scenic and emotional, is unique. And then, there’s the short novella “Daisy Miller” and the innocently sinister “The turn of the screw”, you shouldn’t really miss.

Edith Wharton

If you’ ve read Henry James then you can skip Edith Wharton, aka… masculine Henry James. Or is it that Henry James is a… feminine Edith Wharton? Still, how can you really miss “The Custom of the Country” (1913) and Undine Spragg, one of fiction’s most uncharming female characters- which is such a delight to read-, Countess Elena Olenska and her dilemmas in “The Age of Innocence” or the stunning but impoverished Lily Bart in “House of Mirth” and her emotional struggles?

Kate Chopin

Critics speak of “The Awakening” (1899) as being one of the model books for women’s emancipation. A woman not finding the purpose of her life in raising her children, -a taboo even today- in searching for other ways to find happiness and stimuli in her life… If you haven’t tried it, well, it’s a very easy book to read, you can do it overnight– but, no, it won’t spare you from reading “Madame Bovary” (1856), the… original first “desperate housewife”, written 50 years before.

Gustave Flaubert

It’s not only the subject, it is also Flaubert’s elaborate prose which made him a master among his peer novelists and his successors. His visual style, his fixation on style and the material world, the cadence of his sentences and the study of the human subject make it an essential read. If there is only one you had to pick from the French novelists of the 19th, make it his “Madame Bovary”. And, for a closer and more thorough look on the inexhaustible subject, go for “Anna Karenina” (1873).

Leo Tolstoi

You probably know that Anna Karenina committed suicide in a railway station, you must have quoted several times its opening line “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, but still haven’t read the novel. Do, please. It’s a masterpiece. And don’t stop there. If “War and Peace” seems long enough (even Ernest Hemingway would argue: “I can write it like Tolstoi and make the book seem larger, wiser, and all the rest of it. But then I remember that was what I always skipped in Tolstoi”, don’t miss out on the novellas “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “The Kreutzer Sonatas”, outstanding tokens of what literature can do to describe the human predicament in death and love.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When it comes to the Russians, it’s difficult to lure the true lover of fiction out of their spell. Because the thing that best describes the relationship of an adequate reader  to them is… binge reading. Fyodor’s Dostoyevsky “Crime and Punishment” (1866), “The Idiot”, “The Brothers Karamazov”, “Demons” , “The Gambler”, “Notes form the Underground” are reference books on life and death dilemmas and moral issues written on paper and treated as literature for the first time. When you make the acquaintance with Dostoyevsky’s universe there is no coming back.

Anton Chekhov

And then again there is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904). The master of theatrical plays and short stories that has probably influenced every short story writer ever since. Binge reading is a common practice with Chekhov too. The struggle of his characters to come to terms with their incongruous desires and the mundane life that weighs on them are apparent even in his shortest stories. The doctor with a genuine passion for stories and talent for humanity is difficult to put down, so read at your own pace and risk.

My 30 reasons for always returning to Chekhov’s stories.

ckekhov short stories

Lists may not be everyone’s favorite form of argumentative thought but sometimes thinking disconnectedly –but not incoherently- is the only way to think at all. My 30 reasons is an arbitrary number to signal my love for Chekhov. It could very well be 40, 60 or just one: his talent for humanity.

Why i love Chekhov

  1. For his clarity of description and the realism in depicting his characters’ inner thoughts, motives and sentiments. Should you try hard, you wouldn’t find a vague and redundant paragraph in his stories.
  2. For making page turners out of plotless stories.
  3. For the undercurrents that undermine even most of his straightforward narratives.
  4. For who else has so entertainingly minuted the lasting fragrances of a random kiss (The Kiss), the restlessness of insomnia (A dull story), the sinister weight of sleepiness (The darling), the longing of a person in love to write a letter and send it to the PO (Love), the unbearable loneliness of bereavement (The Misery, The Enemies), the banality of University life (A dull Story), the uninspiring promiscuity of prostitution (The Chorus Girl, A nervous Breakdown aka An attack of Nerves), the spiritual agony of a nervous breakdown (A nervous breakdown), the dreariness and ordinariness of mental illness (Ward No.6), the uselessness of rank and wealth (A lady’s story)…
  5. For his trademark non-endings. An inconclusiveness ascribed to his desire to make a new era for the story (and the play). One to break free from the unrealistic fixed endings of the past which by giving  answers to the readers, were sparing them the need to think for themselves. No comfort zones here. Just awkward helplessness facing the human predicament.
  6. For his testing of our own fitness as readers. (Virgina Wolf on “The Russian point of view”.)
  7. Especially for the unlikely ending of “The Lady with the dog”: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. For the familiarity of those unfamiliar long roads we all eventually take in our lives. And the relief to find other people there.
  8. For being moral without raising a finger. Predisposed to try to understand his characters rather than judge them. For his stories being a masterclass on empathy.
  9. For his rendering dull characters interesting through evoking a special characteristic that makes them unique. (One of his liveliest dull characters is Ippolit Ippolititch, in the “Teacher of literature”: “He considered that the most important and necessary part of the study of geography was the drawing of maps, and of the study of history the learning of dates: he would sit for nights together correcting in blue pencil the maps {…} not a talkative person; he either remained silent or talked of things which everybody knew already.”) For his supporting characters playing a key role in the story. That of blowing an air of physical reality to it.
  10. For his characters struggling with life. Even in the “Dreary Story” (aka A dull or A Boring Story) the teacher who has only 6 months to live, facing his death, it is with life he is struggling. Trying to come in terms with what he has lived and not with the fact that he is dying.
  11. For his sharp anatomy of marriage. Marriages rarely “work” in his stories. Either doomed to failure from their very start due to incompatibility of the spouses or insincerity of their motives (bail out marriages) or starting with the best of intentions (love, admiration), they often lead to the estrangement -even hatred- of the couple.  (A wife, The teacher of literature). Unhappily married wives and wasted husbands constantly draw our attention to the voracious nature of marriage- one of the major subjects of modern theater (Ibsen, Strindberg, Albee).
  12. For his quote “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.” More or less the bottom line of all his short stories: a plan for surviving the day.
  13. Long before Eudora Welty’s “listening for stories” (“Long before I wrote stories, I listened for stories. Listening for them is something more acute than listening to them. I suppose it’s an early form of participation in what goes on), Chekhov had been programmed to listen for people and unearth characters. For he knew they could be found everywhere.
  14. For the ambiguity of evil and good in his characters. The impossibility for the modern man to be an either/or character. And its soothing effect on our conscience.
  15. For his democratization of suffering. The universality of the human condition that knows no classes, ranks, genders and other borderlines. Everybody hurts and Chekhov made that vividly clear.
  16. For his being existential before it was cool.
  17. For giving  boredom, this intrinsically modern emotional, mental and for Chekhov physical state, its literary expression. Many chekhovian characters are paralysed by ennui that renders them apathetic or prone to evil thoughts and deeds.
  18. For the character of urgency even in the most uneventful of his stories that compels us to follow them to the last -but not final- word.
  19. For the mockery of rank positions and lebels. For his debunking hypocrisy, uncovering shallowness, exposing the pettiness of status stemming only form wealth when not followed by education and humane values.
  20. For his being the russian equivalent of Henry James’ and Edith Wharton’s critique on pretentiousness on people becoming the brand of their status.
  21. For his characters being resilient enough to persevere. Even with broken wings, they fly. If the can’t fly, they walk. But still, they go on- a beckettian mindset here: You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.  (The Unnamable)
  22. For his being essentially modern. A timelessness pertaining to the Greek tragedy or Shakespeare in their treatment of free will struggling with fate.
  23. For his content dictating the form and not the other way around. For being essentially anti-postmodern.
  24. For providing you with the words and the sentiments to channel you raw emotional material.
  25. For dismissing the creative courses’ guidelines that for a short story to matter there must be a conflict and a change of its character. Chekhovian characters ponder for a while only to recoil to their familiarly vulgar self.
  26. For reminding us what foolish lives we live. The predecessor of Kafka, Camus, Beckett and Ionesco in framing the absurdity of human existence, before the two world wars  would make it one of the most resonant literary movements of the last century.
  27. For his characters not getting what they were after, or getting what they were after, outliving their happiness (“The teacher of literature”).
  28. For blurring the line between the story and the treatise on the elusive nature of happiness (“The Gooseberries”). For being an essayist through his characters’ lives, suggesting that the condition for one to be happy is for the unhappy to remain silent: “It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at that time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him.”
  29. For resorting to weather to mirror moods, with almost chemical precision and accuracy. The descriptions of weather conditions are never redundant in his stories with snow and rain being organic characters.
  30.  For his talent for humanity. (An expression he uses to describe the main character of his short story “A nervous breakdown”. A perfect fit for the writer.) Because just his unparalleled gift for writing stories would have only gotten him so far.