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!

Book Review: Machines Like Me

Title: Machines Like Me And People Like You (2019)

Author: Ian McEwan

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis

Charlie lives in a rather dingy flat in London, it is some time in the alternative universe of the 1980s. After landing himself with a stack of inheritance money, he buys one of the first synthetic humans, a robot called Adam.

Charlie is in love with the resident living in the flat above his, a student called Miranda. After their love begins to blossom, together, they adopt Adam and play a hand in forming his design.

These first synthetic humans are designed by Alan Turing, as a result of his ongoing research into artificial intelligence. It is important to note that this novel is set in an ‘alternative 1980s’ meaning Turing is still alive – when in fact, he died in 1954. Additionally, Britain has just lost the Falklands war (which was won in 1982) and Tony Benn becomes Prime Minister under the Labour party. However, it was Margaret Thatcher who was in power from 1979.

Among the narrative of Charlie’s everyday life, adjusting to this new relationship with Adam and Miranda, we see snippets of political commentary based on this alternative Britain. Ian McEwan, although presenting an alternative history, still manages to convey the sense of change and upheaval that was the 1980s.

However, when Miranda opens up to Charlie about the events of her past, it throws their relationship and Adam’s involvement up in the air. The use of an artificial human, who appears perfectly likable, and morally aware, makes the reader question humanity’s assumed superiority of being.

Are we really superior, if machines too, are capable of love and compassion. What makes them a machine and us humans?

Review

I desperately wanted to like this book. However, I was left feeling endlessly disappointed.

I picked up this up, as I was fascinated by the theme which the novel aims to discuss. The novel centers on the extent to which artificial humans have the same capacity to feel, understand, and form relationships. McEwan poses the question with the interweaving of two sub plots, can artificial beings tell the difference between right and wrong? Can they feel quintessentially human emotions such as desire, compassion, and sadness?

In the featuring of a being so like us, it raises the question as to whether humanity is the superior being it often imagines itself to be. With the exploration of Miranda’s crimes and Adam’s want to put things right, McEwan infers firstly, that we are always flawed as human beings even if we essentially pursue a positive morality, but that artificial beings could also have a moral compass.

Image: NB Magazine, featuring Adam.

At first, Charlie is hesitant of Adam’s capacity to feel. When Adam reveals his feelings for Miranda, Charlie dismisses his capacity for love as a machine, but this is overshadowed by his anger and jealously. It is only at the very end, that Charlie admits that he thinks machines can feel like us. Turing himself, the fictitious creator of these synthetic humans, also believes his machines are capable of all the feelings and functions of an average human.

All in all, I loved the themes this book prompted and like many of McEwan’s novels, this one certainly caused me to think; about humanity, the function of artificial intelligence and science more generally. However, the way this theme was executed in certain events (which I won’t reveal due to spoilers) I thought was trivial, when it could have been done poignantly.

The complex theme and parameters of the novel were spoiled by the dystopian, alternative history setting, as this sets up an element of the ‘make believe’ which destroys the ability for readers to engage in the possibility of synthetic humans and their capacity – which I thought was the ultimate point being made by the novel.

The love triangle between Charlie, Miranda and Adam was made trivial by the events McEwan crafted between Adam and Miranda. It was, I believe, an unnecessary addition to the novel. Through the mere existence of their cohabitation and Adam’s display of friendship, the theme could have been explored in a more delicate way. However, it was erased by the acts that took place between Adam and Miranda. (You’ll have to read it to find out…)

Miranda and Charlie are likable enough characters and it is interesting to see how their relationship develops alongside an artificial human. However, the novel is completely told through Charlie. Although this creates an in depth, detailed insight into the mind of Charlie, I feel it could have been valuable to include alternative perspectives. Charlie is naturally hesitant about Adam’s capacity for humanity, whereas Miranda is more supportive. It would have added more depth to the novel to include her insight, and the insight of Adam himself. Adam could have shed a light on the nature of humanity from a non human perspective. This could have forced the reader to ask more questions about themselves, and the wider nature of humanity.

There is a few sub plots to the story, one which I thought was rather useless and poorly executed. One day Charlie stumbles across a young child, Mark, whom has been abandoned by his biological parents and eventually gets put into local authority care. Miranda takes a shine to him and convinces Charlie that they should adopt him. Adopting at 22 is strange enough, but Miranda knows she is about to gain a criminal record for her past offences. Additionally, she is cleared of all charges by social services and allowed to adopt Mark, despite spending time in prison. As someone who was adopted myself, I know this would never have happened. Nonetheless, I don’t think this subplot added to the novel at all.

As mentioned – I don’t believe the alternative history added to the story. We are currently living through rising artificial intelligence and the plausibility of synthetic human beings, so why set the story now? The element of dystopia makes the ideas and themes seem alien to the reader, due to the divergence from history. Thus, already, the reader is exposed to inconceivability, which is the opposite of what McEwan is trying to raise.

In portraying Adam as more human than Miranda and Charlie ever sought imaginable, McEwan infers that synthetic humans could be more like ourselves, and thus, more believable. However, in crafting an alternate history, miles from our own, he renders his inference implausible, and ridicules his own suggestion. Creating an inherent weakness in the execution of an initially enthralling theme.

Naturally, the writing is technically beautiful, and nothing far from what I expect from McEwan. It contains large sections of inner monologue from the protagonist, Charlie, with interweaving of political commentary from the alternative world. These parts do not add to the novel, although are sometimes interesting to ponder on.

I was lured into the novel as the writing is beautiful, but I was left feeling utterly disappointed. Nonetheless, this was an interesting novel which is well worth a read. Just not the best McEwan out there.