“I never read a book before reviewing it.”

Reflections on books, reviews and the Classics Club

Literary historians attribute the quotation in my title to Sydney Smith, an English cleric, writer and humorist who lived around the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries. Known for his many witticisms, Smith, who once described Scotland as the knuckle-end of England, that land of Calvin, oat-cakes and sulphur, also wrote of books that there is no furniture so charming. Whereas we may dismiss the first as Anglican prejudice, the second has a ring of truth.

How often do we wander through the stately homes of the land, stopping to gaze in admiration at shelf upon shelf of leather bound, gold blocked volumes, forgotten relics of generations past? These great libraries of the nobility may be charming, splendid even, but surely one question burns away in our minds. Are they – have they ever been-  read? Should they be read?

In this digital age, when it is possible to contain an entire library in a device the size of the average paperback, many readers still feel emotional attachment to the physicality of the traditional book. However, whilst we might enjoy our collections as part of the decoration of our homes, we must not forget the true purpose of the book – to teach, entertain, inspire, amuse and arouse.

The Reverend Sydney, as we must surely call him, was probably not entirely serious when he made his famous remark – or remarks. He did, after all, occupy a great deal of his time writing for a publication called the Edinburgh Review. He would not, for certain, have enjoyed the luxury of easy passage through his university examinations; neither cinema nor television had been invented, and would not be invented for another two centuries, when he studied for his degrees at Oxford and Edinburgh. Reading was his only option.

The vast majority of professional critics and reviewers, like the majority of doctors, lawyers, accountants and even novelists, are decent human beings. For all that, our suspicion remains that, like the student who cheats his way through a test by watching the film instead of actually reading the book, they are not always one hundred percent honest. Somehow our distrust leaves that nagging doubt in our minds: has she (or he) actually read it?

For millennia, human beings ensured the survival of past knowledge and wisdom by that uniquely human ability – speech. They conveyed it in the form of stories, of myth and allegory as well as plain instruction, told and received round the fireside or hearth. This knowledge was necessary for survival and is still, though what was once conveyed by means of the spoken word is now conveyed through the written.

Reading is an enjoyment as well as an education. And how better can we bring others to its pleasures, and at the same time preserve the great literature of the past, than by reading it ourselves, then retelling the story in our own way. By saying: hey, I’ve read this and it’s good!

“I’ve read this and it’s good” might well be the motto of a community I have recently discovered on WordPress. It’s called the Classics Club. The concept is imaginative and challenging as it is simple. To join, pick a selection of classic works, no fewer than fifty. List them on your blog page. Commit to reading them within a fixed time period, not exceeding five years. After reading each one, post a review on your blog page, link it to the list and notify the club. The books can be novels, poetry, essays, plays, essays, anything as long as they were published more than twenty-five years ago.

Yes, it’s a great idea and I have to decide whether to join. But first I need to consider the implications. Do I shrink my reading list of more modern fiction and research, or just read more books more quickly? And of course I have to work on my classics list itself. How do I decide what to include? Should my books be re-reads of works I have enjoyed in the past but never reviewed, or should they be stories I have never read? Where do I fix my deadline? After all, where are any of us going to be in five years time?

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