Classics Club Spin #13: What Does Success with a Book Mean as a Reader?

The last two Classic Club Spins weren’t all that successful for me.

Or perhaps they were.

What does “success” with a book mean anyway? I used to think that it meant I read the whole thing–every word on every page. I read the book. I finished the book. I could answer questions on a test or write an essay about it. A very close second to finishing the book was that I enjoyed or appreciated the book for what it was and/or that I learned something from it.

But these days I’m beginning to embrace the idea that success with a book means different things at different times depending on the book in question as well as my intention upon starting it. After all, if books are multifaceted creations that are continually being re-created by each reader,  to think of my engagement with a book in such black and white terms as success (finished) or failure (DNF) has been a rather simplistic way of thinking about my reading experience. Am I reading each book to read each book or am I familiarizing myself with a particular book to, say, develop a greater understanding of the history of American Literature or perhaps familiarizing myself with a particular author’s oeuvre?

Part of me believes what I’m trying to articulate here, and another part of me thinks I sound like the loser in the back of the class arguing why I didn’t finish the assignment. Sigh.

When I couldn’t force myself to finish either Catch-22 and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (my last two spin books), I initially saw it as failure. However,  I certainly read enough of each to gain familiarity with the style and get the gist of their content. I understand what each author was trying to accomplish. For now, I’ve come to realize, that is good enough. In the future I won’t be surprised if I pick up either or both of these novels and we become BFFs. I’ve learned never to say never when it comes to my personal reading preferences.

For me, at this time, maybe reading the entire classic isn’t always the point. My school-aged self would be so disappointed to hear my older self say that. And my former teacher-self is shaking the cage, yelling, “READ THE BOOK! YOU MUST READ THE WHOLE THING!”

“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” — Madeleine L’Engle

Here are my options for lucky spin #13:

  1. Pride and Prejudice, Austen, 1813 
  2. The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne, 1851 
  3. Carmilla, Le Fanu, 1872 
  4. The Bostonians, James, 1886 
  5. A Room with a View, Forster, 1908 
  6. Maurice, Forster, 1914 
  7. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce, 1916 
  8. The Education of Henry Adams, Adams, 1918 
  9. Winesburg, Ohio, Anderson, 1919 
  10. So Big, Ferber, 1924 
  11. The Magic Mountain, Mann, 1924 
  12. The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck, 1939 
  13. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Smith, 1943 
  14. From Here to Eternity, Jones, 1951 
  15. The Price of Salt, Highsmith, 1952  <— The Chosen One for spin #13!
    I’ll be reading a 1986 Naiad Press copy of the book, which still lists Claire Morgan, Highsmith’s alias, as author.  I used to own a bunch of Naiad Press books–unfortunately, I loaned them out, sold, or donated them over the years.

  16. Lord of the Flies, Golding, 1954 
  17. Giovanni’s Room, Baldwin, 1956 
  18. Ship of Fools, Porter, 1962 
  19. A Moveable Feast, Hemingway, 1964 
  20. Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut, 1968 

When compiling this list I avoided huge tomes from my CC list like War and Peace and Don Quixote that I know I won’t have the patience for this summer. I’m looking forward to giving any of these a go.  The Classic Club moderators will chose a number on Monday and I’ll come back and highlight the book I’ll be attempting this time around, which I’ll read (or not) by August 1st.

Fellow Clubbers–are there any books we have in common? Feel free to share your list in the comments. What does success with a book mean for you these days? For those of you not familiar with The Classics Club, check it out here.

Happy reading!


    1. I am participating in this spin, too. I have had “success” on my past books by doing one of these two techniques: 1. Listening to the audiobook version and/or dividing the book into pages I need to read each day or week (usually less than 50 pages per week or 10 pages a day). I also blogged about the books midway through several times to talk about different things I was noticing or learning. For example when I started feeling overwhelmed by THE YEARLING I did a little research about the author and found some interesting information about her. That info and my blog spurred me on to read on. This time around I took a hard look at my list before I posted it and removed those books I really don't want to read right now and added others I really do. I should do the same thing for my Classics list. I should re look at it and decide if I REALLY want to read all the books on it.

    2. I've never been one that I have to read the book…well, except when I was in school. But I'm no longer in school and I don't have to do anything I don't wanna. 🙂 So if a book's not doing it for me, classic or not, I'm done and time to move on to the next one. Looking at your list, I don't see a lot of happy books there, but I do see some good ones: The Grapes of Wrath and Lord of the Flies. A Room with A View, I l liked the movie, but I think I've tried to read Forster and just couldn't get into his books. Good luck if you try.

    3. I did put Don Quixote on my list but I'm a little scared that I will actually get it! However, I agree with Anne – my list should only have books on it that I really want to read, or at least attempt to read. I like your suggestion that we should maybe not think of a DNF as failure. Sometimes it's enough to get a sense of what the book is and that it's not time to read it right now.

    4. Yes! I think it's entirely possible to put a book down and still have an overall positive experience from the parts you did read. Not only getting the sense of the work, but a grasp for the characters and their motivations. For me, that is the basis for a successful read. I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn last summer, and it is now one of my favorite novels. A great choice for your list!

    5. Man, it took me three or four tries to get through Catch-22. I did enjoy the read by the end of it, but it's certainly a slow burn. But I've DNF'd quite a few other “classics” (my guiding principle is TIME Magazine's Top 100 Novels list, with a handful of alterations. Books I've dropped include Naked Lunch, Revolutionary Road, A Death in the Family, and The Confessions of Nat Turner (I really liked this one, actually, and would like to finish it; it was just a library book and I had to return it).

      You've got some good ones on your list, IMO! I was never a huge Steinbeck fan, even if I liked Steinbeck-the-person, so it kind of blew my mind that I LOVED The Grapes of Wrath. I just read Giovanni's Room and The Price of Salt for my book club this year and I really liked them, too. Winesburg Ohio was a college read and I liked it at the time, but I don't know if that's because of the comparison with everything else I was reading for school.

    6. I like the idea of trying an audio version and did that with Catch-22 and it still didn't work. If this next book lags I'll try doing some research…that sounds like it could get my juices flowing! As for my main Classics list, I started with 100 and eventually realized I had a lot of books I thought I “should” read on it, rather than books I was genuinely curious about. After this first 50 I'll probably do another list of 50.

    7. OMG, I used to be soooo anal about having to finish a book I started. Thankfully, I gave that up years ago, but these last two classic spin titles not panning out kinda bummed me out. But I found a way to turn that frown upside down now, didn't I? 😉 I do want to read The Grapes of Wrath this summer.

    8. So glad to hear you feel the same. It's a big attitude change for me. I picked up a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn not too long ago and plan on reading it this year. Nice to hear it's now one of your favorites.

    9. Catch-22. I have a suspicion that book will haunt me until I finally surrender to it! I listened to the audio version of Revolutionary Road and enjoyed it. Actually purchased a paper copy to read as I was rather intrigued by the characters. They weren't what I was expecting…not that I knew what to expect. I like audio books but usually feel like I miss part of the book when listening rather than reading. I'm looking forward to The Grapes of Wrath. I know people kvetch about how depressing it is, but I also hear respect for the story coming through people's voices when they talk about the book. Know what I mean? The Price of Salt is the book I'll be reading for this spin–glad to hear you liked it. I'm pretty psyched!

    10. Love your way of thinking about this. It's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that forcing yourself to finish a book is “winning” and anything else is for LOSERS… I feel the same way, often. But life is too dang short to go on torturing yourself over a book that is just no bueno for you right now. I gave up on Middlemarch not too long ago & am replacing it with another choice so I don't feel so bad about it haha. Anyway, I'm looking forward to seeing what you think of The Price of Salt!

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