Maybe I Should be Reading with Cliff’s Notes…

So there I am, reading a classic like Bless Me, Ultima or something. And I’m reading it, and it’s gorgeous, and I can tell that it’s amazing, and I can tell that the author is trying to tell me SOMETHING, but I just. can’t. figure. it out.

I can’t be the only person this happens to, right?

I don’t know what it is about 20th century literature, but I always feel like I’m missing something. I know enough about literature to be able to tell that something is going on, but not enough to tell what it is. Maybe it’s that the literary elements they teach us in school like metaphor and symbolism are more relevant to Romantic literature than Modern and Postmodern. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really know all that much about literature, and I can’t figure it out without a teacher holding my hand.

I really want to like these books. I feel like I almost like them. I just don’t understand them well enough.

Maybe I should start buying Spark Notes or Cliff Notes. Maybe then I would “get” books like The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. Maybe if I “got” them better I would like them better.

Maybe I just need to enroll in a literature class at my local community college. Maybe the library offers something like that. Maybe I just need to join a book club.

So, friends who like the classics, what do you do? How do you understand these books that are best appreciated at a deeper level?

26 thoughts on “Maybe I Should be Reading with Cliff’s Notes…

  1. Ok…I’m huge on book discussions, which is why I love book clubs, because I get to have my questions answered. But if I really don’t get something I might ask my daughter…even if she hasn’t read the book, if I tell her the basics she usually asks me the right questions, and yes…I’ve gone to sparks notes. This happens to me with movies too….I recently saw a film “souvenir” (alone) and I didn’t get a few things. I told my friend who loves indies that if she saw it, tell me, because I needed to discuss stuff I didn’t get

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Clearly you need to not be in grad school. But I highly recommend it, especially for you, because you ask such insightful and thought provoking questions. I really think you would love it

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve read classics and other more current books that either you need cliff notes. Or you want to take notes on with so much information involved. It’s a battle, but if you finish the book, in the end…you won the war!


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  3. I do think 20th century “literary” style (of the “literary” genre) tend to have a certain style which tried to be difficult on purpose as a way of seeming important and deep. Not that there is never anything good to come out of it, but it’s the quality I sensed as a student that turned me off to that genre, as it came across as pretentious, less meaningful, and unfun.

    On the other hand, sometimes a reader’s failure to understand a book might really be the reader’s fault. For not reading carefully enough, or for holding on to assumptions and prejudices while reading, or for just not meeting the book on its own terms. In such cases, an outside perspective can be helpful in making sense of the book.

    And sometimes a good book is just difficult. I love George MacDonald’s “Phantastes” and “Lilith”, and I sorta get them, but there’s a heck of a lot I don’t get and I would love to discuss them with someone who understands them more.

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    1. Yes. I so much agree with you on postmodern. I have to add that there’s a few genuine authors who are that brainy for whom complicated style is not a pose. Even then, they tend to be loved by a minority. (Some classics we’re that way, but as there’s more divulged on them, one can prepare and conquer, hahaha). I’m also of the thought it’s the reader’s fault. Our reader’s trajectory prepare us for some books to reveal themselves to us.
      I have only successfully read The Princess and the Goblins. I tried Phantastes and failed. I may try again. I’m currently hooked on The Ambassadors, which is a tough one for many. I was ready for it.
      Reading muscle is cumulative, and classics are like steroids. At 48 I can read, enjoy, and get stuff that I didn’t even know it existed or that it could be so much fun!

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Oh I definitely usually assume it’s my fault. My default reading mode is to typically not look into anything AT ALL, so going deeper is real work for me, and work that I’m not particularly good at.


  4. You are not alone!!! I always think that I am missing something that’s why my reviews are more about feelings than over analysing the book LOL

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  5. I have found lately that I enjoy looking up discussion questions for the books I am reading. I try not to read them before finishing the book (because SPOILERS) but If I read them, and even if I only answer them in my head after reading, It kind of forces me to think a little deeper? A lot of books have discussion questions online, but not all of them, so just be prepared for that.


  6. Good question. Much postmodern lit is simply difficult for most of us, it’s very different, experimental with form, made to bury the reader in a laborious maze full of different layers.
    What I do is read what lovers of the book and author say. I don’t mind knowing about the book and plot. If it’s something as vast as Midnight’s Children, -to give you an example-, I do audio, and back to the text, etc.
    But in all honesty, I need to have a good measure of enjoyment from the get go. The good news are that in my case, the more classics I read, the more others open themselves to more appreciation -even when much of the book goes over my head-.
    Usually, the classics demand that we read them twice, or that we revisit them after listening to new insight from podcast, or even Cliff notes. Still one should enjoy whatever process you choose. Oh, difficult ones I have done in online bookclubs, and it’s been great.

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      1. I was a homeschooling mom until this year, and part of an amazing forum where our children’s curriculum was solidly rooted on the best books. So we the moms decided to read some books that were coming for the upper years. We read The Illiad, Macbeth, Paradise Lost… It’s been the best conversation ever.
        Then I have a local friend and we read books together. It’s so good. We have listened to some Close Read podcasts and Center for Lit. Center for Lit is amazing. It’s not that they analyze the book for you, it’s more like raving about a book of author and helping us see the value or point for the book, etc.
        At my blog also, I held the most amazing to date bookclub ever. It was The Gray House. The translator joined our conversation. It was magical.

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I hear great things about the homeschooling community. That’s amazing that you guys work together like that for the benefit of your kids. I’ve always been in awe of homeschooling parents, especially in the summer when I’m at home with my kids all day. I don’t know how you guys do it. Give me 20 hooligans over teaching my own 2 any day!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Hahaha. I don’t know. I joined the school system again this year as a sub. My girls attended public and charter schools. Now in the summer, we are finally enjoying a good amount of activities and rest. I am able to read lots, they, as teens, sleep lots.
            The moms at the Ambleside Online homeschooling group are some of the most intelligent, readers extraordinair, and humble people I have ever met.
            My daughters claim they don’t remember anything I did with them, -sigh-, I read aloud to them, went to trips, walks, sang with them, did crafts, cooked with them… Maybe when they grow up they’ll gain some perspective.
            Having been in two worlds, schools, and homeschooling, intentional motherhood is the challenge.

            Liked by 2 people

  7. You’re definitely not the only one- I feel like this too with certain books. I think it helps to write notes/annotate as I go. But some books are (dare I say it deliberately) obscure- and I don’t really enjoy that style. And often if I read the interpretation I find I still don’t like it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I don’t know that I’ve read many (any?) books that are deliberately obscure, just because that isn’t really for me and I know it. Also, those books are easy to recognize. I also rarely read literary fiction that was written after 1980, because if I’m going to slog through something so difficult I may as well know that it’s something we’re going to keep talking about, if that makes sense.

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  8. Read it again in ten years. You will have gained so much life experience and maturity compared to now that one of two things will happen …

    You will find the book totally deep and relatable and realize you just weren’t ready for it before OR
    You will realize it was written from and for a very insular culture that you are not a part of, and that’s why it didn’t speak to you.

    Anyway, that’s just based on personal experience.

    Here are some books that I did not get the first time I read them, but later loved: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby.
    Here are some that I read as an older person and would not have appreciated when younger: Catcher in the Rye, Misery, Thinner.
    Here is one that I will always hate: 1984.

    As for almost every single Agatha Christie book, I devoured them as a teen, but I was missing probably 50% of what was going on because I didn’t know the first thing about British culture or the class system. Going back to them as an adult, I can better appreciate their intricacy but also their snobbery.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hated 1984 too. Ugh. I enjoyed The Cather in the Rye a lot more as an adult, but I don’t know if it’s just because of my age, or if it’s because I read it after hearing several people wax eloquent about why it is that it’s so amazing, and what’s so important about it. Insight like that is often very helpful to me.

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