- How to be Well Read – Winnie the Pooh
- How to be Well Read – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
- How to be Well Read – Little Women
I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to try to become well read. Where do you begin? It all seems so daunting, almost overwhelming, not to mention that you almost feel like you need to be well read, or at the very least highly educated, before you can even attempt to read classic literature. But you don’t. It’s easier than you think. I know, I’ve done it.
An avid reader, throughout high school and my early twenties I stuck to the safe, not too deep, modern fiction and historical romance novels (you know the kind, with big breasted, scantily clad women and long-haired men with bulging muscles on the cover). Eventually it just wasn’t enough, I wanted more from a read, plus I didn’t want to feel embarrassed anymore when someone asked me what I was reading. There are only so many times that you can mumble your reply before people begin to suspect that you are, in fact, illiterate. But where to begin? I decided to jump in at the deep end, and make my start with Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. I can honestly tell you I read it cover to cover without understanding half of what I was reading. Which meant once I learned the flow and syntax of the language of the era I had no choice but to read it again, and that isn’t something I would wish on my worst enemy. Tolstoy was an uptight, prigish elitist, both socially and intellectually; a moral bully who was overly fond of his own opinion. I wouldn’t recommend reading Tolstoy until you have built-up your intestinal fortitude.
So where should you begin? Well I am happy to help you, take you by the hand and walk you through the veritable minefield that is classic literature. Believe me when I say it isn’t as difficult as you may think and it’s so worth it. Classic literature is the best of the best a bygone era. It offers a glimpse into those long-past societies upon which we have built our modern social and intellectual structures, and in coming to understand those times and people better, you will know our modern life better. That and you’ll impress the hell out of your friends and family.
There are a few things to know before we begin. First let’s talk about publishers. An author’s copyright lasts until about 50 – 70 years after death, after which anyone is allowed to republish his or her works. This means that there are many different versions and edits. Some are simple reprints of the original but many strive to “fix” problems from the original print. Some are sympathetic to the original whilst others go overboard “fixing” things that the author has not authorised or envisioned, thereby effectively ripping the soul from the book. So it’s important to find a version that is either very close to the original print or at least only edited with the lightest touch. If the book is a translation this can lead to even more difficulties. However I have found that the big name classic publishers like Penguin Classics usually do a very honest job, and, in Penguin’s case, they include notes at the back, referenced throughout the book, to help you understand long lost words and phrases. For the uninitiated this can be very useful.
For instance: in my copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, one of the many notes explains the sentence “… in short, did her work like the neat handed Phillis she could be when she chose”. Without understanding the world in which the Brontë’s grew-up this statement could be mystifying, as Phillis is not a character in the book, but the reader is obviously supposed to understand this flippant comment. Luckily Penguin Classics knows you won’t understand what the fuck she’s on about so they explain it very well: “Phillis: the name is common in Renaissance pastoral verse, but the reference here is quite clearly to the Phillis of Milton’s ‘ L’Allegro’, whence Charlotte Brontë has taken the epithet, neat-handed…” A handy and educational tool I’m sure you will agree.
With all this in mind it’s time to recommend a key book to help you on your path to being well read.
If any phrase has been in my mind whilst researching this article it is most certainly “baby steps”. You need to start small and learn from the ground up before you can easily read and understand the likes of Dickens, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky or Shakespeare. So with this idea firmly implanted, my first recommendation to you is Winnie the Pooh.
Yes, the A.A. Milne children’s classic Winnie the Pooh. We all think we know these stories, but most of us have never been exposed to more than the Disney films and that is a travesty. These classic tales will leave you feeling charmed and happily nostalgic for a childhood that, whether real or imagined, was blissful, untroubled, and innocent. Winnie the Pooh is the first of four books, two of which are stories and two poetry. The stories in Winnie the Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner are the charming tales upon which the Disney films are based. However, these tales are really only fully experienced by reading them, as the films aren’t even half as charming as the original books themselves.
Winnie the Pooh may seem like a silly choice for your first step on the road to a life long love of classic literature but the Pooh books are a must read. In the Pooh stories Milne has captured perfectly what it is like to be a child. The simplistic perfect logic of an innocent child, uncomplicated and guileless. The kind of thinking that could lead to world peace, the end of famine and poverty, the kind of thinking we all lost at some undefinable point. Pooh deals with the trials of his simplistic life with cheer, love and innocent playfulness. Reading these books will make you feel good. It’s that simple. The reason that I recommend the Winnie the Pooh books to begin your journey, is that among everything else they are fantastically well written. With syntax that reads like prose and language that harkens back to yesteryear they make the perfect warm-up for something slightly more meaty. Consider them the breadbasket on the table before the appetisers arrive.
If being seen reading Winnie the Pooh on the tube or in the local coffee shop is more than you want to consider, then read them at home. Read them to your child, a niece/nephew or a neighbour’s kid and if no physical child presents themselves, read them to your inner child. They are children’s books after all, a rainy Sunday afternoon is all you really need. And I guarantee that after reading them you will feel a need to play like you haven’t felt since the days of hopscotch, skinned knees and freeze tag. They are truly life affirming books, and who doesn’t need more of that?