The “classic” debate: to read or not to read?

Classic literature has been the talk of the town since lockdown began, as people turn to those dense, un-read books cluttering up their bookshelves. I have seen arguments floating around that claim classics are not relevant in today’s world – which is a premise I find interesting. I agree that no one should read classics just for the sake of it, but would hate to think we shouldn’t read them, just because they don’t reflect the society we live in.

The “yes” argument

Firstly, the most basic one – there is a reason classics are classics. It usually means they’re good, right? Attaining the classic status isn’t easy and there’s usually a reason that a book has one. As readers, we may disagree with its status, however, they are usually deserving in some respect.

Personally, I like reading classics because of the historical element. When writing a book, the author either consciously or unconsciously is writing in response to their specific social and cultural climate. Reading classics take you to that author’s past and you are able to see the world through their eyes.

I’ve said it before, but I have always felt like classics offer us a unique window of opportunity into another time or place . Take James Joyce, for example, I haven’t read anything by him myself, but I’m aware that his writing has been credited for this ability. As well as Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac and many others.

No one should read a classic because they feel they ‘have’ to or that to be a reader you need to read classics – this isn’t true at all. You should read what you want, as simple as that. However, I do find that when finishing classics I get a different sense of accomplishment. Classic literature can be hard to read with the language often being very different to our own, some works can be heavy and dense and these are all things that the modern reader isn’t trained for. Not because of the kind of literature being written now – but because of our tuning into social media, which encourages us to read things in the quickest time possible. I don’t know about you, but my attention span during lockdown has definitely gotten worse…

I truly believe that reading a classic once in a while does a very good job of working your brain and making you understand the world in a way you hadn’t viewed it before. Of course, there are good and bad classics but there’s nothing like the sense of achievement when you realise you connected with a book written decades ago.

The “no” argument

The term “classic” is very vague, and one we have created ourselves because of popularity or to what extent books have influenced the literary genre. Additionally, just because a book is popular, doesn’t mean it is going to be good. I still don’t understand the current obsession with Normal People… It is easy to obsess over status and how well a book has supposedly changed the world; when sometimes readers just won’t connect with the story. You are allowed to dislike a classic! Some examples of mine include The Graduate by Charles Webb and Catcher in the Rye by J.D Salinger.

Image: Medium

Essentially, what I’m saying is that “classics” are man made and pre-loaded with expectations because of their status. This can give us a false sense of hope and already influence our opinion on what the book will be like.

I sometimes think the categorisation of books into “classics” and “non-classics” creates some kind of hierarchy which we sub consciously take note of when choosing books to read. It also breeds this notion that somehow if you read classics, your’re more intelligent which is obviously ludicrous. However, when I was younger I definitely thought this was the case – I even had a list of the 100 Books You Must Read Before You Die printed out, and tried to make may way through them. I don’t do that now but this is an example of the kind of reading mindset that “classics” can influence.

Additionally, books given a “classic” status many years ago, were more often, the best on offer in an age dominated by white, male authors. Obviously society has changed a huge amount and we have a more diverse range of authors to choose from, but this argument does have some significance. We should always be viewing classics in perspective – as they are a product of the time in which they were written.

Or you could just say when categorizing books we are simply thinking too deeply. Maybe I even am in writing this post – but I think it’s an interesting discussion to have.

Image: Pixabay

My experience with classics

As I said, I used to be one of those people who obsessed over classics, as a result I have made my way through a fair amount. It barely even crosses my mind now, as I pick a book to read based on if I like the sound of it, or other peoples’ recommendations and what I know about the author. That said, I do still have an ongoing appreciation and respect for classics, but more the “modern classic” variety such as George Orwell, John Steinbeck, John Fowles and Ian McEwan (oh dear they are all men…)

If you’re interested, you can still access this same list I had printed out as a young teenager. I have now read 42 out of the 100, not that it matters but I thought some of you might be interested!

On a lighter note, some of my favourite classics include: The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Jane Eyre, 1984, On The Road and To Kill a Mockingbird,

What do you think about classics? Do you read them? I’d be curious to know your thoughts!

My top 3 Classics to get you through isolation

As our lives suddenly become filled with more empty hours it is the perfect time to read! Reading the classics can seem long and arduous compared to a quick page turner, however, now is the time. These are my top three classics I think are well worth reading! Let me know if you end up trying them.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte, 1847

Jane was never plain! Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre follows the life of a determined young woman who has had all the odds thrust against her. Published in 1847, the book immediately portrayed a new type of heroine. One that rose beyond her ranks and respectability, to try and pursue the man she loved..

Jane grows up in an orphanage and is exposed to endless childhood cruelty. However, she doesn’t let this shatter her pride or spirit. As a young adult she works as a governess at Thornfield Hall, Mr Rochester’s residence. Jane spends her time looking after the children there, all the while gradually falling in love with the mysterious Mr Rochester – she knows this is a type of forbidden love, due to her social standing. However, Jane naturally has an air of independent spirit thanks to her upbringing – this soon leads her into uncharted territory.

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will…”

Secrets start to haunt Thornfield Hall and all the while Jane is torn between staying there to be close to Mr Rochester, or leaving to pursue her own safety. Will she get to be with the man she loves?

A remarkable novel for its times, and one I loved reading very much. It is on the one hand, your classic, Victorian Gothic novel, but on the other hand, a complete re-working of its traditions. It’s a tale of an ordinary woman’s search for love and companionship and attempt to break down those traditional barriers. Never take for granted Charlotte Bronte’s use of a strong, female protagonist, it was way ahead of its times, and her execution is breathtaking.

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck, 1939

This may well be the ultimate American novel. Set during the disastrous American dust bowl phenomena, this novel follows the Joad family, in their struggle to make a living and stay afloat in troubled times.

The Dust Bowl refers to a series of storms that severely damaged the ecology of the Great American plains in the 1930s. Happening during the aftermath of The Great Depression (1929), it had long-lasting disastrous economic and social affects. Most importantly, it was not just an environmental disaster, but one that impacted the lives of many Americans who lost their agricultural lands and livelihood. Many Americans had to leave their homes in the search of a better life – and this was a promise that was more often than not, never fulfilled.

Told in blisteringly beautiful prose, Steinbeck outlines the many implications of the Dust Bowl and its influence on your average American family. The Joad family are forced from their homes to travel West in search of jobs and an income to feed themselves. Taking it day by day, the Joad family struggle to find enough to eat and make ends meet. The prose unreservedly describes the obliterated landscape as the family travels West, making it a reading joy, despite the troubled circumstances.

What becomes obvious throughout, is the falsehood of the American Dream and that great promise that if you work hard, your efforts will be rewarded. Steinbeck critiques this very ideal and thrusts to the forefront the very real struggles experienced by many American families during the 1930s, as they made their journey West in the hope of a promised future.

“…and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.”

Beautiful and harrowing, this is a must read and one that will stay with me forever.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925

A timeless classic which I’m sure is on many people’s favourite lists. Again, this novel does not shy away from critiquing the false promises of the American dream and that importance of wealth that has been emphasized throughout American history and culture. Wealth has often been heralded as the one marker of success and ultimate happiness, but this novel exposes the human realities of pursuing this dream with a blind capacity. Endless wealth for Jay Gatsby, can never equate to a lifetime of pure happiness.

Told in myriads of beautiful prose containing metaphors, genius symbolism and expert crafting of character, this is the one novel that made me fall in love with literature. Its timeless message is one that makes it so significant and enduring, but it is in the crafting of the novel whereby it is so special.

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Jay Gatsby appears to have it all. He lives in the biggest mansion known to man, right next to Nick Carraway, who has arrived to New York in search of his own American Dream. Nick meets Gatsby and is naturally entranced by his persuasive and endearing persona. Through Gatsby, and his cousin Daisy, Nick soon gets involved within the millionaire lifestyle that thrived in the 1920s. Lavish parties, fast cars, and an abundance of alcohol soon appears to be the norm.

But Nick knows this is never sustainable. Known as the unreliable narrator to Gatsby’s pursuits, Carraway uncovers the falsehood of the American Dream to readers, in his subtle critique of this lifestyle and the events he experienced with Gatsby.

In the end, Gatsby realises it too. But too late. It is a tale of impossible dreams, love, and an unsustainable lifestyle that is more corrupting than it is fulfilling. It is a novel I unashamedly go back to again and again, each time finding something new I love and admire.