I was just reading this post on the Brookline Booksmith blog, and thought it brought up an interesting point. A student said, "I read New Moon, but then I made myself read Emily Dickinson before moving on to Eclipse. I always read a book I should read before one I want to read." Her professor lamented, "But that's tragic. You're treating literature like...vitamins."
So why do we often treat classic literature like it's our duty to read it, like it's good for us but not enjoyable? Too many people have this perception that all classics are stuffy. Sometimes, after reading a classic like Lord of the Flies or Macbeth, a couple of students will say, "I actually really liked it!" While I'm pleased that they enjoyed it, I wish they wouldn't sound so surprised. After all, the classics became classified as such because of their great impact. However, I think that one thing that's important to remember is that you're not going to like every single classic, and that's okay, but just because you don't like a couple does not mean you should automatically condemn the rest. Though in general I like Shakespeare, I despise Antony and Cleopatra. I have a love-hate relationship with Jane Austen. I love such classics as Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations, but dislike Wuthering Heights (except for this version...skip to 1:05), Catcher in the Rye, and Cranford (ok, I didn't even get past page 50 of this one it was so dull, because apparently nothing happened in country life in the 19th century). Different people just have different tastes, and it's important to try out different classics to see what appeals to you.
As for why I read the classics, it is not simply because they are "good" for me, though I certainly think they are in that they challenge one's mind. Though Jane Eyre is of a different time, I admire that she is a strong-willed woman who goes after what she wants. Atticus Finch strives to be a good role model for his kids, just as my parents have been for me and I hope to be for my children someday. Miss Havisham shows the dangers of bitterness, regret, and revenge. Truly great stories have timeless themes, even if some of the details become dated. Absorbing their lessons can help us gain a greater understanding of our own lives. Yes, sometimes the language can be a bit difficult to grasp at first, but it's worth working through. I always enjoy when my students come to understand the Porter scene in Macbeth, and realize that good ol' Billy Shakes had a dirty sense of humor. Furthermore, I enjoy having a greater understanding of how literature has developed, how it's influenced people over time, and how it represents the hopes and fears of society in any given time period.
As for "guilty pleasures," there's nothing wrong with them. Reading is a great activity, even if your chosen book is the latest Lauren Weisenberger novel. Those kinds of books go down easily and amuse us, and amusement is worthwhile. Yes, I do think that it's important to also read books that challenge us more and are a bit deeper, but as said before, deeper thinking doesn't mean that something is boring and unenjoyable. I love hiking, even though not every hill is easy. But the conversations I have along the way, the sense of accomplishment I feel, and the view from the top sure make the challenges worth it. Great literature will give you similar feelings. Lighter books are maybe more akin to a walk around your neighborhood. Not as challenging, and perhaps without as big a payoff, but it's still good exercise as well as fun to chat with whoever you're with. Each type of book has its rewards, and they shouldn't be categorized as stuff we "want" to read versus stuff we "should" read.
So far this summer I've read Beautiful Creatures (dreadful writing, but amusing), Peter and the Starcatchers, and The Outsiders (so many students have recommended this to me, included kids who generally hate reading, and I loved it!). Also on my list is The Professor and the Madman, Middlemarch, And the Mountains Echoed (the new Khaled Hosseini novel...so excited), To Kill a Mockingbird (since I haven't read it since 9th grade), some short stories, and whatever else I end up fancying. I like to mix up the types of books I choose, and not just by "classics" versus everything else...different books suit different moods. What are you reading this summer?