One of the reasons we read older literature is to be plunged into a different world. It's a world apart from our own, separated by a gulf we can't cross - that of time.
When I read Sherlock Holmes, I am IN Victorian London. I'm walking the old streets, I can feel the heavy fog. It's the same with Mark Twain. I'm pulled into a time and place that is long gone, and it only exists in literature.
We love to watch movies of those times, but since the movies were made long after those times, and made by people of modern times, it's not always the same experience. But when you read Jane Austen, you are experiencing the day to day existence of the leisured landed classes of nearly 200 years ago, a time before railroads and telegraphs. It's a world between medieval and modern. It accurately takes us into the minds of people for whom that world was real and shows us their concerns, their problems and their social interaction.
That is why we read period literature.
But three things you need to keep in mind:
1) That crazy vernacular
2) Odd customs and social norms
3) Slow pace of the books.
Let's talk about those. First, you have to remember those are necessary elements. It's all part of the package. Usually people who choose to read period literature are choosing that experience.
The vernacular is not bad for people who read a lot of this stuff, you get used to it. The problem is after five or six books by Dickens or Austen, you find yourself talking that way in public. Then you sound like a freak and people look at you funny. Trust me. I have stories. They're not pretty.
One of the hardest elements for me are the customs, the expectations, the whole "society" thing. Let's face it, we live in a fairly open minded society. Most of us would be stoned to death if we lived in Victorian Britain. I would be at the head of the line, and they would create a new holiday celebrating my execution. Think Guy Fawkes.
However, the one thing that is hardest for the modern reader to take is the slow pace of the stories. The long, drawn out scenes that seem to go on forever with nothing happening. Read the first few pages of the Hunchback of Notre Dame if you want an example of what I'm talking about. Modern writers are a different breed, with lessons taught from the fast-paced world of our New York based publishing industry. Grab the reader with the first sentence and hold them until the end. If it doesn't forward the plot or explain character, get rid of it.
When I read a book, it's like a commitment. I'm sacrificing hours of my own, personal time. Plus, I'm investing my thoughts into understanding this book, which means I have to learn about the characters and allow myself to be placed into a world created by the author. Maybe I don't want to do that. Maybe it's not going to be a good experience. There are literally thousands of books to choose from. How on earth do I know it's one I want to read? I won't know until after it's too late.
I've put down quite a lot of books that just didn't work for me. I've stopped reading some of them a few chapters from the end. In fact, I've finished some books that I should have stopped reading early on.
That's why so many 19th century novels are not read today. People stick with the well known ones. But I will be that daring soul that leads the way. I will hold my breath and dive in to that great pool of unread oldy, moldy literature.
Wish me luck. If I don't come back, send in the latest James Patterson novel. And be quick about it!