As an English major, I’ve had to face reading a lot of old school period reads. As an English major, I think I may be about to utter a sentence punishable by death if certain professors of mine get wind of this. Sometimes those old petticoat skirt and funny hair dramas are far from a good or easy read. Sometimes, you’ll be up late reading a book and trying not to lose track of everyone’s name because that might be on the exam and wondering why the author took break from anything to do with the actual plot to take up two chapters describing the architectural history and landscape development of a building that’s not mentioned more than twice in passing afterwards, because this will most certainly not be on the exam.
This entrance is by no means me saying all old books are boring or terrible. There are loads of classic books and writers I cannot recommend enough. That being said, there are plenty of books that don’t read as enjoyably to modern eyes, and I totally have to read all of those anyway because of my aforementioned major. I recognize this as an obstacle many besides myself will have to face, and so I’m offering up my experience, so you can benefit and I can vent. Here are some tips for getting through difficult classics without turning to SparkNotes, (or turning to SparkNotes less than usual) and without tearing your hair out in frustration.
What does any of this have to do with anything?!
So old novels in general tend to have longer word counts. Normal language and style just had people using more words than they do now, and you may not understand all these words. This will only heighten your frustration when you find yourself reading ridiculously long dialogues, or those previously mentioned dreadfully long and dry descriptions of peripheral settings. You could research period dialects and become a historical expert of the different reasons a man would wear this or that cravat in the 19th century, or you could role with the punches a bit. See if you can just get a general feel for the meaning of what’s being said. Oh, good guy so-and-so knows that Lady Whatever loves Lord-Kind-of-a-Prick.
The thematic undertones of good vs. evil or slightly abstract social commentary are the important bits when it comes to getting a feeling for the book anyway. If a simple farmer is earnestly speaking his mind to the lady of the house, then maybe they’re saying something about the virtue of the simple honest folk or knowing the land. Descriptive passages also thematically set up atmospheres and maybe even provide little moralizing asides for the author, but if they get really ridiculous I usually just snort in frustration and skip ahead. That’s how I was able to get through half of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame in only six months before rage quitting at yet another aside about the architectural history of the Notre Dame Cathedral. There really was a Gypsy lady with an adorable goat side kick in that original story and he buries that lead with judgmental descriptions of interior design. Hmph.
Okay, but who are all these people?!
What, you don’t remember that Count Villdore d’Gassi is the son of that one slightly more important Lord Hodorn d’Gassi from the novel’s first part? He was totally mentioned as being present in that one party in chapter fifteen! Plenty of old books have fancy graphics or family trees in appendixes meant to clear up who everyone is related to and why we should care about this person’s romantic intentions towards that person and so on. Those can get complicated, so I recommend naming the characters like the dwarfs in Snow White, simple names that reveal their predominant character traits, ” Nice Rich Guy,” “Mean Rich Guy” “Mean Rich Guy jr,” “Virgin Love Interest.” Really, depending on the classic, you won’t need to get much more complicated than that to sum up the whole of the book’s meaning. “Good Rich Guy beats Mean Rich Guy, marries Virgin Love Interest.” Boom. There, just summarized over half of the period romances you’ll ever read, classic or otherwise. Take notice of what vices or virtues they represent, “Good Rich Guy is honest. Mean Rich Guy is mean. Mean Rich Guy jr. likes to gamble. Virgin Love Interest is a hot virgin who just can’t make up her mind because she’s so fine and pure.” and you are ready to write a collegiate level paper about that book, once you fluff up the language and add some filler.
When’s the freaking ending?!
You’ll know you’ve reached close enough to the ending when the two unlikely lovers are about to get married, or everyone is mostly dead and ruined, depending on how sunny a disposition your book’s author has. Usually, everyone from Lord d’Gassi to that one stable boy in chapter three have to be given a resolution fitting their personality and character. That old relative or family friend that approved of the young protagonist’s love and helped them when no one else would? They’re dead, probably looking down on them from heaven or whatever. Lady so-and-so is in an unhappy marriage with whats-his-face because she had the audacity to tell the heroine not to follow her dreams in love. It turns out the stable boy in chapter three is that aging rich widow’s heir. That one dude killed himself for unrequited love. Everything usually has to have a fitting bow on it, with no fewer than three people revealing or discovering they are actually rich and related to/ married into a good bloodline. This excludes the bad guys, who are usually dead, publicly shamed, or in prison by the end.
The ending is the final point for the author to very obviously finish up the perfectly composed moral to the story, so skip right to this part if the plot seems slow and you just need to get straight to the “big picture” point for a book report or whatever.
Well, this entry has gone on for a good long while, but I have piles of 18th century literature to get through and writing this helped enough that I think I can get through this without resorting to self harm and a coffee overdose. Best of luck to everyone else reading a book filled with more flowery prose and petticoats than common sense.