I have a shelf dedicated to housing books I intend to read. It used to be several shelves. Perhaps one of the most liberating moments of my life was when I purged my bookshelves of classic novels. Works by Dickens, Trollope and the Brontës were packed off to the charity shop, destined to be bought by other readers who would then leave them on their own “to read” shelves. Until they finally saw sense, and passed them on for another reader to fail to complete. And so on. These books have probably travelled more than I have, as they circulate from one house to another. It’s a form of endless recycling that benefits no one. Although the charity shops are probably doing quite nicely out of repeat sales.
We buy certain novels because they are labelled as classics. But are they worth our time? This designation doesn’t actually make them readable. We see it as somehow obligatory to read these books; perhaps we think that in doing so we are bettering ourselves. Or maybe it’s an educated form of masochism. I’m not a literary snob. Reading should be satisfying, diverting, or escapist. If you like something, read it. If it bores you, bin it. Or don’t pick it up in the first place. There’s no law that sentences you to finish the Pickwick Papers before you die.
Dickens’ method of writing in monthly instalments led to the weighty word count of his books. Perhaps if he’d pruned his writing, he might have actually completed The Mystery of Edwin Drood. This isn’t the only reason why some classics are deadly dull, and perhaps the reasons are irrelevant. The pertinent point is that age doesn’t make something worth pursuing. Will your life be improved if you make it through War and Peace, or Dombey and Son? Will you be a better person by the time you finish? No. You’ll be several months older.
So dump those tedious volumes. Life’s too short to waste it trying to struggle through 700 pages of turgid prose. There are millions of entertaining, thought-provoking, marvellous books out there. If you’re going to dust bookshelves, at least make sure that they’re full of books you’re actually going to read. If you offer valuable space in your life and house to classics, do so because you want to read them, not because you think you should. And be grateful I’m not paid by the word.