What Do You Do When You Come Up Against a “Classic” Wall?


Here’s an open question for the day. What do you do when you’re trying to broaden your pop culture horizons by trying to read something deemed “classic” by anyone and everyone. This could be as intellectual as trying to read “Dante’s Inferno” or as commonplace as really trying to get into a Arrested Development, despite feeling like it’s just not really your “thing.”

I’m finding this happening more and more these days, mostly with books and TV shows, though sometimes with games and movies as well. Games are tricky because it’s incredibly hard to go back and play an old title you never experienced before with how far graphics and gameplay have advanced. Nostalgia taints our memories, and while I may be fine playing Goldeneye to this day, going back to try and get through KOTOR, a game I never played when it was new, is like trying to read paintings on a cave wall, it feels so primitive.

This is happening to be me in literature lately as well. I’ve devoured probably twenty well-known sci-fi books in the last year, but a few were brick walls I simply couldn’t overcome. One was William Gibson’s Neuromancer, sci-fi so hard I couldn’t understand most anything that was happening, though I knew I had to read it because of how much it influenced the genre, and really, modern technology in general. The same goes for Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a book that’s supposed to be absolutely incredible, and by an author I love, but it’s practically like reading Greek to me, and I’m not sure how to get around it.

Eventually, after quitting Neuromancer once, I started again, reading far, far more slowly to not miss a single word, and I was able to understand it better. I’m trying to do the same by restarting Anathem, but it’s proving even more difficult.

What about you? What are some classic movies, shows, books, games that you just can’t get into, despite your best efforts. If you’ve quit some, then came back to finish them, was it worth it? How did you do it?

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  1. Depends on the case, for me. Typically I just set whatever thing aside and go work on something else that’s been needing my attention. Occasionally I decide that reading something solely for its historical significance isn’t ultimately worth my time. Unless it really is. It’s kind of a delicate balance, I think.

    I posted about the Silmarillion earlier… the last time I tried to read it, which was right after reading Lord of the Rings, I hit an absolute brick wall. Imagine my surprise to note that the prose that had seemed so alien and dense not only made sense, but actually engaged me. I blame Grant Morrison, but the point is that if it’s something you need to read, you’ll come around to it eventually.

    On a more practical note, When I failed on two separate attempts to get through the opening info-dump of Dune, I switched to the audiobook version for a while to help get me past that part. Now it’s one of my favorite books.

  2. This is a brilliant subject for debate, though I’m not sure how many will take the bait.

    When I was back in college many moons ago, I did an awful lot of creative writing. Without trying to boast, I think the profs thought I was pretty good at it, as they were mostly scoring me very highly and many of them were suggesting authors I should immediately begin reading in order to home my skills. Anyway, one English / Creative Writer professor told me my stuff reminded him of Thomas Pynchon, whom at the time I’d never heard of, so he suggested a book for me to pick up and read over the summer break. Well, I made it about three chapters into the alleged classic before I put it down.

    When I went back to school in the fall, the professor came up to me and asked if I’d picked up the book and read it. I told him I did, and he asked what I thought. I told him I had no effing idea what Thomas Pynchon was trying to say and that, if that’s how he thought I wrote, I’d be better off taking other instructors’ classes.

    Yeah, I was a smart@ss. I figured that was very Pynchon of me.

    I’ve tried many, many, many classics, and, yeppers, I find a lot of them just plain inaccessible.

    1. I think this raises another crucial facet of this subject: It’s important to be aware that different works become classics for different reasons.

      Like, I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody praise Pynchon outside of an academic context. I’m sure that Pynchon is an extremely intelligent guy; undoubtedly a distinct, bold voice in the world of literature. Even so, the nature of his writing sorta limits his audience to people who, for a lack of a better phrase, “get it.” I don’t, at least not so far, and I have a feeling I’m just not in that crowd.

      But on the flip side, there are writers like Dickens and Shakespeare who are primarily well-known because their rock-star-level popularity. Their stories have touched millions of people over the centuries, and in as such it might be worth getting past the “language barrier” a lot of people encounter with their works.

      There are a ton more sub-categories here, but “classic” can be an over-simplification. Why is it a classic? To whom?

      Obviously, Paul’s a sci-fi writer talking about sci-fi classics on a sci-fi-oriented website, so… I’m not ENTIRELY on the same topic as the post at this point.

      Also Vonnegut is probably the author who I feel the most guilty about not being able to connect with. Forgot about him when I was commenting earlier.

  3. There seems to be two factors here. One is time-sink fallacy — those novels that are really thick and deep, like James Joyce or Dante’s Inferno, take a lot of time and analysis to understand. Like Homestuck, there’s a human illusion that the more time you spend on it, the more you understand, the more you understand its complexities, the more you see the nuances and you feel better about yourself for spotting those.

    The other is the academics. Professors and other high-minded types have the mental capacity and training to see and spot those literary techniques like symbology, motifs, themes that make it more art than story. Unfortunately, none of that translates to readability.

    My tip? Read the Cliff notes or SparkNotes or online essays about them. Either as you read the book, or instead of. It’s not like you’re going to be tested on it.

  4. Neuromancer definitely did that for me. I tried it 2 or 3 times, but never made it more than halfway. It just wasn’t “sticking” in my brain.
    I recently read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time. It was good, certainly, but I had a lot of problems with it. Foremost being the abrupt ending, and the blase dismissal of the young girl.

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