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 reads for the year so far

Lying in bed trying to sleep the other night, it suddenly dawned on me that we are nearly half way through the year. 2020 has been a strange one so far, and it will probably be strange for a long time, but one things for sure, I’ve definitely rediscovered my love of reading now that I’m not a full-time student. In this post I thought I would share with you three of my favourite books I have read this year. What have been your best reads so far? Let me know!

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

I have definitely been late to the party with the Hilary Mantel craze, I think I’ve always been put off reading the series as being a history graduate, I’m naturally wary about historical fiction and the way it can distort the truth and change people’s perception on history for the worse. However I was so surprised with how good this was, and in fact, it probably changes our historical perspective for the better.

Reading this was honestly an experience of pure joy, Mantel manages to capture all the tiny details of the drama that unfolds during the court of Henry VIII, through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. I love how the protagonist is Cromwell, who is commonly thought of as the historical underdog. The reader becomes his eyes and ears and is fully immersed in the trials and tribulations of what it is like to serve the tumultuous monarch that was Henry VIII.

This was the first book I read in lockdown and I don’t think I could have picked a better one – it provided me with pure escapism and living in another world. The writing is beautiful and really captures your imagination. It really went beyond my expectations and I can’t wait to read the others!

“You could watch Henry every day for a decade and not see the same thing. Choose your prince: he admires Henry more and more. Sometimes he seems hapless, sometimes feckless, sometimes a child sometimes a master of his trade. Sometimes he seems an artist, in the way his eye ranges over his work; sometimes his hand moves and he doesn’t seem to see it move. If he had been called to a lower station in life, he could have been a travelling player, and leader of his troupe.”

Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell

I’ve always been a fan of George Orwell. I can still remember the exact moment and feelings I experienced when I first read 1984. Since then, I’ve been trying to read more widely and getting beyond the texts he is prominently known for, I’m truly surprised that this novel is not one that more people have read.

I loved it from start to finish and was naturally drawn to the story and protagonist, as Gordon Comstock leaves his unfulfilling job to work in a bookshop. Sounds pretty perfect, right? Except it isn’t so easy. Gordon struggles with a lack of money and cannot resuscitate his writing ambitions, he feels lost and directionless but also angry that he has to come to terms with depending on the vast forces of capitalism (that he despises), to make a success of himself.

It contains some classic Orwell elements – the portrayal of inner city poverty, wealth inequality, critique of capitalism and the rich, but with a rather nuanced and different type of story from Orwell’s other writings. I loved the protagonist and his ambitious nature, expressed in voluntarily leaving his well paid job to pursue something he loved, even if this meant his quality of life would be near to living below the poverty line.

“He had blasphemed against money, rebelled against money, tried to live like an anchorite outside the money-world; and it had brought him not only misery, but also a frightful emptiness; an inescapable sense of futility. To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

I devoured this book from start to finish. I downloaded it onto my Kindle because it was on offer and didn’t expect much from it, however, I ended up loving it. Initial impressions of this book are that it’s going to be a somewhat light read, but as the story goes on, we find out more about Eleanor Oliphant, and for one, realise, she is not completely fine, and she has a rather dark past and struggles with managing her current life.

I was attracted to the main character – as I enjoyed her frequent musings on defying social expectations and norms and found her to be very funny, and despite her own appearances she holds up, very likeable.

However, under the surface she is incredibly lonely and endures a silent life of alcoholism every weekend to escape from the repetitiveness of work and her tiresome phone-calls from her mother, who frankly bullies her. Everyday, the people around her take her for granted. From narration of her life, her habits and routines, you can really see how this kind of life can be easily slipped into – the book has a kind of realistic, relatable factor which I enjoyed, it seemed very real.

One event spirals into another and Eleanor Oliphant is finally able to work on herself, as a reader, you want her to have a happy ending. I loved this book and would read it again and again!

“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allowed span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.”

Book Review: Why I Write

Title: Why I Write

Author: George Orwell

Published: 1946/2004

Rating: ★★★★★

Overview

Why I Write is an extended essay by George Orwell, that discusses a range of topics. Orwell begins the essay with outlining his motivations for writing. Famously, Orwell wanted “to make political writing into an art”. (Hence Animal Farm and 1984…)

Orwell gives the historical and political background to England, writing during the context of World War Two, with the rise of Fascism across Europe. He discusses the ‘Nation’ and why it fails as a concept in England – mostly, he argues, because England has forever been a country of equal wealth, thus we can never be regarded as a common entity.

Orwell also discusses socialism in the practical and ideological sense. In simple terms, economic socialism believes all commodities and ownership should be regulated by the state, rather than private companies and individuals. In theory, this should reduce the inequality that capitalism naturally produces, when wealth is in the hands of a few. Socialism also promotes equality, freedom, and opportunity for all.

Additionally, Orwell focuses on the influence of the media in shaping political opinion and includes the construction of language in this. The use of language is deliberate and its connection to politics is undeniable – it influences political understanding through the construction of events. Orwell argues, it has a strict purpose, “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable” – any of this starting to sound very relevant?…

Orwell ends the essay with a set of writing rules to avoid creating false meaning, which is often fostered by political rhetoric.

Orwell’s writing rules
Source: Rough House Media

Above all, this essay makes the imperative case for socialism, set in the context of World War Two. Although miles apart from today, the sad endurance of his argument reigns true.

Review and analysis

I’ll say it straight away – I loved this essay and wanted to commit every sentence to memory. Orwell has the capacity to say everything with such coherency that I always almost think about giving up on the ambition to be a writer… Will there ever be a greater communicator than Orwell?

It was the relevance of this essay that made me enjoy reading it so much. Although it was written a long time ago, and in an incredibly different context, the message for political change is something that transcends time. Orwell argues for the necessity of socialism, something I also believe in, but he does so in such an eloquent and damning way, that I think even the most staunch Conservative could get behind him… (possibly!)

Orwell outlines the reasons for why the general public are against socialism and identifies this as its failing point, if socialism can never be mainstream, then how is it ever going to achieve change? I found myself making stark similarities to today’s political climate in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn, the most ardent champion of socialism in the Labour party for a generation, was unable to win a General election (twice) – but the party’s membership was the largest its ever been.

Labour Party Rally
Source: Labour List

In the last election (2019) Labour had a massive defeat and was criticized for failing to get the masses on its side, as the election was overshadowed by Brexit. This and voters’ opposition to socialism resulted in another Tory majority. Orwell argues that people are opposed to socialism as they perceive of it as taking away from their livelihood (in the form of paying more taxes). People think in terms of individualistic economics, rather than the greater good. And what has changed there?

Orwell also includes a four point program for political change, which has striking similarities to Corbyn’s Labour manifesto’s.

On his agenda is nationalization, limitations of income and a minimum wage, educational reform and the dismantling of private education, and an alliance of equality with India. The last point is an anomaly, given that Orwell is writing before de-colonization, this was the only thing I had a problem with. He isn’t radical enough about India and destabilizing the Empire – as he disagrees that India should have free reign from Britain. But again, context is key. This kind of paternalism enforced on other nations, was still in mainstream thought at this time.

As well as outlining the merits of socialism, Orwell describes the failures of capitalism in its creation of unequal wealth, which is unable to allow the progression of the masses. This results in vast, historic, class inequality in Britain, and negates the idea that Britain is a, ‘nation’ of solidarity, but in fact, a country hugely divided by wealth and opportunity.

Orwell goes on to outline the problems with achieving political change and the inherent obstacles that are in the way – most notably, privilege. This is embodied within the origins of mainstream politicians, journalists and lawyers that run the country. Thus, it appears, we are still raging the same battle, which is depressing, but just goes to show how Orwell’s ideas transcend generations.

Furthermore, the failures of socialism are also discussed, the main one being the lack of mass appeal. Which I have always thought is ironic, as socialism is about the masses. However, Orwell makes a valid point in that unless socialism becomes the political mainstream, change will never happen. Centrist Labour policies are essentially a continuation, and thus, socialism needs to be at the centre of any Labour agenda (RIP Corbynism…)

Finally, I found the link Orwell makes between language and politics fascinating. He argues that, “present political chaos is connected with the decay of language…” in the sense that language can distort truth, and influence the political consensus. He brings to light how the language of nonsense and “fluff” can be used by politicians to distort reality and detract from blame.

Lack of understanding is therefore deliberately constructed to deliver false meaning. (*Coughs* Boris Johnson… *Coughs* Matt Handcock…) Which becomes pertinent when thinking about our mainstream, Conservative politicians we have the pleasure of sharing evenings with in the UK, for our daily COVID-19 briefings….Just listen to one of these, and Orwell’s argument about language and politics will be demonstrated.

Too often politicians use the language of buffoonery which alienates their responsibility of answering the question and facing up their reality of failure. Therefore, the public are left in the dark and truth is obscured.

This is a classic Orwell essay, with a message that reigns true. Which is both worrying on the one hand, but on the other, pays homage to the efficiency, clarity, and enduring message of Orwell’s thought. It transcends historical and political contexts and puts forward the type of change we still need today.

“it is only by revolution that the native genius of the English people can be set free.”

Book Review: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Image: Violet Daniels

Title: Keep the Aspidistra Flying

Author: George Orwell

Publisher: Penguin, Modern Classics (2000/1936)

Rating: 5/5

I will never shut up about Orwell. Yes, it may seem kind of strange to be banging on about his writing so many years on; but his work will never not be relevant, regardless of the type of society we live in. Thus, I once again returned to reading some Orwell. This time, with a book which was published 84 years ago.

Synopsis

Gordon Comstock is disastrously unhappy. He’s a slave to an advertising industry that he despises. He is wasting his literary talents on an industry that he cannot morally support but is reaping the benefits for the sake of having a good job and monetary stability. However, Gordon soon realises that ploughing on with this goes against anything he stands for.

Gordon quits working at the advertising firm and instead spends his days being a bookseller, whilst trying to write. Every literary person’s dream, huh?

But the realities of living in self enforced deprivation soon take their toll. Living in such a futile, poverty stricken existence, soon sucks the life out of Gordon’s writing ambition. It begins to affect his relationship with wonderful Rosemary who he very much loves, and impacts his friendships.

The thing is, at the route of all success, whether that be family, romance, or friendships, is money. Having money gives you everything in a capitalist driven society. Gordon will have to somehow over come his natural opposition to this, if he is to maintain his relationship and devotion to Rosemary.

Gordon desperately did not want to become part of the capitalist, class stricken world that he found himself in, whilst working as a copywriter for an advertising industry. In trying to follow his heart and stick to his morals, he embarks on living in a world of self-inflicted squalor, poverty and pain. Within this, we see a vision into the world Orwell so despised, and the society in which he himself, did not feel part of.

Review

As soon as I had finished this, I knew instantly that it was my new favourite book, and possibly the best Orwell (so far) that I have read.

Others have dismissed this book as just pages of winging monologue, from a failed and depressed creative wannabe. However, I fully sympathized with the struggles and misfortune of Gordon Comstock and felt that the dialogue acted as an enlightening critique of the society that Orwell and many others were living through. This critique is timeless, as it can so readily be applied to our own society.

Fundamentally, Gordon was opposed to the idea of having money and the whole notion that society gives respect to those who have money and ‘stable’ jobs, above anything else. Even now, upon graduating, students are expected to have all these plans and to have secured graduate schemes before even having a chance to breathe after graduating. All for the sake of being able to tell someone your fancy job title and starting salary. After all, is money all there is? No, and this is precisely what this novel is about. It is a critique of the money driven society and individuals that succumb to its pull.

“Money, money, all is money!… Social failure, artistic failure, sexual failure – they are all the same. And lack of money is at the bottom of them all.”

In this book, is a character who tries to follow his principles and who is brave enough to stand against the societal norms he is enchained by. I sympathized with his struggle. To persevere with your own happiness, rather than reaping the benefits of an easy job, is a brave thing to do. Trying to make it as a writer, Gordon’s one true passion, was to take a massive leap in the dark.

However – this book is also an illustration of poverty, using London as an example. The vast difference between those who are in high paying jobs, and those who are struggling to make ends meet. Between those who are living in shared accommodation where the sheets are never free from bed bugs. To those who are living in bachelor pads on their own, that are big enough for a family of ten. As within all cities, there are the super thriving, and the people who are struggling every single day. It is a tale of how living in a city can be simultaneously the engine for creativity but also the architect of destruction when you are living in poverty.

“The bare floorboards had never been stained but were dark with dirt. In the cracks in the pink wallpaper dwelt multitudes of bugs; however, this was winter and they were torpid unless you over-warmed the room.”

I loved this book through and through. The political message is clear and ongoing, the struggle of poverty is brutally and honestly told, but the importance of being happy, self fulfilled and doing something we love is brought to the surface. Being a slave to capitalism will always have the potential to kill personal ambition – and that’s what is reiterated in this novel. Individuals must rise above its forces, by not becoming its slave.

Gordon resolves himself eventually from the cycle of poverty and goes back to his initial job due to the demands of certain circumstances (which I will not reveal as it will spoil the book!) but makes a definitive reservation to keep on writing, despite everything. He can recognise the wrath of capitalism and the drain it can have on his dreams, but he lets it go, and rises above it. Pure genius, as always.

“To abjure money is to abjure life.”

Going back to Orwell: 70 years on

The Essays of Orwell: Books Vs Cigarettes 1946

Before thinking about writing this post, it hadn’t occurred to me that today is the 70th anniversary of George Orwell’s death, until reading something published by the BBC. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about his life, his writing and political outlook.

Who was George Orwell?

Known most for Animal Farm and 1984, Eric Blair, writing under the pen name, George Orwell, has come to be one of the most famous author’s of the twentieth century. Born in Bengal, Orwell would go on to win two scholarships at two prestigious English schools, Wellington and Eton.

After completing his education, Orwell became an Imperial Servant. This was the beginning of the period in which Orwell was manifesting his political outlook, in 1928, he resigned from the post, as influenced by rising anti-imperialist sentiment.

After this experience; Orwell tried to immerse himself in the realities of deprivation; he donned rags as he went to London’s East End and the poorest areas of Paris. Which later, formed the book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). This is often cited as Orwell’s first socialist memoir and insight into poverty. Later publishing, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) which is an even greater exploration of these themes. Wigan Pier deals with the conditions that working-class individuals were experiencing in Lancashire and Yorkshire, before the outbreak of World War Two.

Orwell is remembered primarily because of 1984, but during his time, he was a prolific figure in the more radical politics of the day. He was first of all, a self confessed anarchist, then came out as a socialist in the 1930s, against the rising tide of fascism. After being rejected for military service during the Second World War, he began working for the left-wing magazine, Tribune in 1943.

In this post however, it is not his novels I want to talk about, but rather, his essays. Having read 1984, Down and Out in Paris and London, Animal Farm and The Clergyman’s Daughter, I thought I knew Orwell quite well, until I started to discover his essays. This post in particular, will be discussing one essay, titled, “Books Vs Cigarettes” which Orwell published in 1946 in the Tribune.

Books Vs Cigarettes (1946)

Writing in 1946, after the end of World War Two, this essay is in response to the idea that reading is an expensive and inaccessible past time. This idea is often thwarted about in our own society, with the assumption it is a privilege that people in 9-5’s cannot afford. Orwell is therefore, critiquing the assumption that reading is a luxury activity.

Orwell in a convincing argument, states that mundane habits such as smoking and drinking, will cost the average person (per year) more than it would to sustain a reading habit. He details his own spending, Orwell was a heavy smoker himself, which cost him more than he spent on books per year.

Take this framework into today. The average Netflix, Amazon Prime or Spotify subscription probably amounts to being able to buy 1-2 new paperbacks per month. Or even better, when buying secondhand, probably 3-5, or even more, depending on the price. Orwell makes the point that there are far more expensive habits which are permitted among the populous, but reading is discounted as being a costly luxury.

Orwell also emphasizes the importance of buying second-hand books and borrowing from local libraries, friends or family which I think is important to point out. Reading doesn’t have to be an expensive habit, nor does it have to revolve around you owning the material you are consuming.

Additionally – Orwell goes on to highlight that the value of reading should not be purely in monetary terms, as one book can have a lifelong impact. (Indeed, 1984 itself is often sighted as a book which has changed the outlook of many readers, myself included.)

The impact of reading one book is worth more than its monetary cost, due to the longevity of the ideas it can plant,

“There are books that one reads over and over again, books that become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s attitude to life…”

George Orwell, “Books Vs Cigarettes,” 1946.

Final thoughts

Thus, in sum, Orwell argues that in fact, reading is one of the cheapest forms of, “recreations” and it is wrong to assume books are “less exciting” or not so worthy of spending time on. I feel this point is significantly applicable to now – with evenings easily absorbed by Instagram or watching YouTube on the loop. Reading is in fact, one of the most worthwhile past times, which does not have to cost you an arm and a leg.

On the anniversary of Orwell’s death; perhaps this should serve as a reminder that books are powerful and some books certainly leave their marks; on the way we think, view the world, and form opinions; in the most permanent of ways.

Furthermore, reading is not a luxury but a form of “recreation,” which is often brushed under the carpet in an age of so many other forms of entertainment. What would Orwell think? We can only guess.

I will be attempting to read as many of Orwell’s essays this year as I can, to try and understand the way he thought, and how this influenced his writing. I will keep you updated!

References

https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Orwell/Animal-Farm-and-Nineteen-Eighty-four

Link to the article: https://orwell.ru/library/articles/cigar/english/e_cigar

This is interesting too, was published by the BBC today: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ideas/videos/would-george-orwell-have-had-a-smartphone/p080x74t