7 Classics to Avoid Like the Plague
Because not all of them are worth reading even if people say they are.
“You have to read this book–it’s a classic!”
Who hasn’t at some point heard this phrase? I know I have, many, many times. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading. Fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, picture books, plays, menus, maps, road signs—anything that has words on it is fair game to at least glance at. Many classics have been given “classic status” because they’re powerful enough to change lives, but the problem is, what if the change isn’t a good change at all? What if—no matter what most people say—the classic in question just, well, sucks, but everyone’s too afraid to say anything (just like in the Emperor’s New Clothes fairytale, which is a story everyone should read because it’s a classic!)? Because we all know that to dislike a classic one has to be an uncouth culture-flunky, and who wants to be called that? Well I do, which is why I’ve compiled this list of seven classics that aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.
1. Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes (novel)
Don Quixote was written in 1605 in Spain, and is about an old man deluded by his books on chivalry into thinking that he can be a knight. He then spends many chapters trying to act out his misguided chivalry to prisoners, innkeepers, and servants, etc. with oftentimes disastrous results. After 74 chapters of this, he dies after recanting his chivalric ideas.
Depending on the version, this classic can be from 800-1,072 pages. Besides obviously needing an editor to trim down a few hundred pages, the humor isn’t always appealing (especially for so many chapters). Readers are meant to laugh at Don Quixote because of his failed attempts at life in general: Thinking windmills are giants, and repeatedly attacking them. Attacking strangers and getting beaten up, and lots more embarrassing, palm-to-forehead moments. To understand what a reading experience of Don Quixote can be like, imagine the extremely awkward secondhand embarrassment humor of season one of the Office, and now imagine watching the basic plot and horrible Michael moments of the first few episodes on repeat…for the book version of eternity. Don Quixote is virtually the older version of Michael Scott—occasionally pitiful and endearing, but also irritatingly out of touch with reality. Except in Don Quixote, there’s no Pam, Jim, or Dwight to keep the story moving.
Alternative Reading Option: To be fair, there are a handful of amazing quotes in Don Quixote that are worth reading.
So don’t read the 800-1,702 pages of the novel—just look up ‘Don Quixote quotes’ on
Google and prepare to be inspired.
Disposal Method: Chuck at the nearest windmill.
2. The Divine Comedy: Inferno, by Dante Alighieri (novel)
The story is thus: Dante is called to visit heaven by Beatrice, a beautiful dead woman he loved from afar (when she was living, not dead—otherwise this would be a story by Edgar Allan Poe). During his journey to Heaven, Dante travels through the nine levels of hell, meeting many people who are being punished for their fleshly and spiritual sins (oddly enough, many of them are the author’s political enemies. What a coincidence!). Dante’s trip involves fainting, chatting it up with Virgil, more fainting, threats from demons, and even more fainting, before he finally climbs up Satan (who’s frozen in a lake of ice, by the way) on his way to Purgatory. Personally, Dante’s 99.9% made-up descriptions of hell, petty inclusion of people he dislikes, and last but not least, fainting episodes, makes reading the Inferno a trial.
Alternative Viewing Option: The Inferno is considered a poetic masterpiece in Italian, so maybe something was lost in translation. Even so, for something that involves Dante’s journey pattern but without the fainting, check out the movie classic, On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando.
Disposal Method: Torch it (safely off campus, of course).
3. The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway (novel)
A novel on alcohol, the lost generation, and impotence, The Sun Also Rises follows a group of young-ish characters who love to drink, sleep around, and be cruel. Nothing much happens, although the characters spend the majority of the novel thinking of being productive, which counts for something. If you squint.
The characters are despicable (without the cute minions of Despicable Me), and nothing happens for the entirety of the book. Oh wait, except for when the main character punches someone. Now that’s a highlight…
Alternative Reading Option: Anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote in the same era, but who aces the blend of deep symbolism and character action. Suggestions: Great Gatsby (a short novel) and Babylon Revisited (short story).
Disposal Method: Put in carton of McDonald’s fries: they can not-do-anything together for millennia.
4. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte (novel)
Jane Eyre is one of the most well-known Gothic romance classics since it was written in the 1800s, mainly because of the dark romance and Gothic mystery. But its thrill is undercut by the bland and depressing heroine, Jane Eyre, with her intensely brooding hero, Mr. Rochester. The premise is that Jane Eyre becomes a governess for rich Mr. Rochester’s ward, and while there, they fall madly in love. They’re all set to marry when (surprise!) Jane discovers that Mr. Rochester has been keeping a crazy wife in the attic the entire time he’s been wooing her.
Boring, silent heroine? I can tolerate. But a wife locked in the attic by an all-too broody, emotional, nostril flaring 1800s-Edward-from-Twilight? No way.
Alternative Reading Option: Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, is a Victorian mystery novel that’s not well-known today (but was hugely successful when it came out in the 1800s). This novel’s mystery, bits of horror, and cunning sleuth make it worth putting on the to-read list. For an extra-fun Gothic spoof and Regency masterpiece, check out Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.
Disposal Method: Lock away Jane Eyre in your attic. Then pull a Mr. Rochester and dramatically (with nostrils flaring) throw away the key.
5. Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare (play)
Ok, so first: William Shakespeare is a genius playwright…but he’s not a god. The story of Romeo and Juliet is universal and a classic, but let’s be honest: the play is complete and total proof why good friends are needed to keep us from making stupid decisions. Juliet and Romeo are too young to be completely and maturely in love (especially after just meeting each other), and minor detail: their families are enemies. Despite this they decide to get married, and the rest is history—they die (in an irritatingly dumb moment of miscommunication), and the next few centuries are plagued with tragic love songs about “destined” but short-lived love stories (although to be fair, this isn’t completely Shakespeare’s fault).
Alternative Reading Options: Some of Shakespeare’s other remarkable plays: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (fantasy/comedy), Much Ado About Nothing (romantic comedy), Othello (a complex tragedy), and Macbeth (a bloody—but thrilling—tragedy).
Disposal Method: Save copy until Valentine’s Day, and then, to the tune of Taylor Swift’s ‘Love Story,’ make valentines for friends and family. Because at least some good can come of Romeo and Juliet’s love story. This is the sappy, safer, and much nicer disposal method. The other? Split Romeo and Juliet in two, poke one half with a kitchen knife and if it’s possible, poison the other half…which also commemorates Romeo and Juliet in a slightly darker way.
6. A Rose for Emily, by William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor’s short stories
William Faulkner and Flanner O’Connor specialized in Southern Gothic stories, which focus on amplifying the grotesque to show the perceived decay in humanity. A Rose for Emily is on many required short story reading lists, and is mainly about a woman named Emily who has lived alone for decades. Years ago her beau went into her house and was never seen again, and after Emily dies (many, many years later), the townspeople go into her home and find the man’s corpse in Emily’ bed. Rotten. With a strand of her silver hair on the pillow next to his head. Shudders Try discussing this in an 8AM class while eating oatmeal.
Like Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor also specializes in horrific Gothic stories to get her point across (many dealing with how low humans can go). However, the overdramatic grotesque horror overshadows most of the good points she’s trying to make—an old woman suffers some kind of stroke (with horrible, detailed facial expressions, such as dead, bulging eyes) as a symbol of her world caving in, an ugly, overweight girl who’s too knowledgeable (not my own descriptions—O’Connor’s) and who has a wooden leg gets taken advantage of, and another old woman gets shot in the chest after hearing the sound of her family members (including a small child) being shot in the distance. While these stories gets an A+ for fitting into the Southern Gothic creepy style, readers may need to fight the gag reflex and fight even harder afterwards to look for the good in humanity.
Alternative Reading Option: To Kill a Mockingbird is a phenomenal, easy-to-get-into novel that shows a more realistic picture of what life was really like in the mid 1900s in the Deep South, without any fantastical grotesque qualities.
Disposal Method: I would have come up with a method that ties this in with a rotting corpse or something else disgusting, but I just couldn’t go there. So just dig a hole, and bury these short stories as deep as you possibly can.
7. Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles (play)
Three words: Marrying your mother.
Add to that all the violence and prophecy and death, and no. Just no. Because really, who has time to be scarred for life?
Alternative Reading Option: Peter Pan, because he doesn’t even have a mother. Plus it’s just such a happy book with beautiful quotes and thrilling adventure that potential scarring is virtually non-existent (although the tick tock of the crocodile is pretty ominous).
Disposal Method: Honestly, there’s just so much tragedy and of course, the whole incest thing, that my preferred disposal method is to trash it. But for best, mind-cleansing results, immediately take the trash out to the dumpster (which will make your roommates happy, so bonus!) and then think happy, non-tragic thoughts for the rest of the day.
While there are many classics that are beautifully crafted, comical, haunting, or epic, there are equally as many that don’t deserve the reverence they receive—and you’re entitled to decide which is which, depending on your reading tastes. Hopefully this brief list will be incentive to make your own list of classics to avoid and classics to try. And if anything, the disposal methods would be a fantastic story to tell….
Katie Patchell is a Staff Writer at the Daily Runner.