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: The Graduate

Title: The Graduate

Author: Charles Webb

Genre: Fiction, Romance

First published: 1963

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

Synopsis

Benjamin Braddock returns back to his family home from college with a brilliant degree, a teaching prize and a bright future ahead of him. However, for the next year, he lazes around in his parents’ middle class suburban, American household, dwindling away the hours floating around the pool and drinking into the early hours.

He is plagued by the feeling one gets after graduation. Where shall I go from here, what shall I do with the rest of my life? The age old question which has tramped many from generations gone by. He returns from college, not revived by the prospect of education – but drowned by it.

Things soon take a turn, as Ben is seduced by the wife of one of his fathers business partners on the evening of his graduation party. This soon turns into a shady affair, led by Mrs Robinson. In the middle of this, Ben is then encouraged by his fathers business partner, Mr Robinson to take their daughter, Elaine out on a date.

After this date, Ben is suddenly in love with Elaine – the daughter of the woman he was having an affair with. Ben soon fleas to Berkeley to pursue the apparent love of his life.

Review

I had been looking forward to reading this for ages. The promised feel of the book appealed to me, having only graduated at the beginning of this year. However, almost everything in this book disappointed me. This is the lowest rating I’ve given to a book this year but I just can’t justify it being any higher.

Lets start with the protagonist – Benjamin Braddock. He comes from a wealthy family and has just finished his college degree with securing a possible teaching placement at Harvard university. On returning home, he begins to find the prospect of further education draining and a waste of time, but he has no idea what else to do. Faced with endless pressure from his snobbish parents – he feels he ought to do something noble and good. I can relate to him on this level – but that’s where it ends. If there is one word to describe Ben – it’s flippant. And not flippant in a good, Gatsby-esque way, but in an annoying and incomprehensible way, that never leads to anything.

Ben thinks the whole world revolves around him and thinks he is too good for the world – and that really gets to me. He is male, white, college educated and has prospects. Why does he constantly fail to acknowledge his own privilege and the potential power this could bring? I guess this is in the dating of the novel.

The novel is mostly told through repetitive, argumentative dialogue between Ben and his parents, Ben and Mrs Robinson (the woman he was having an affair with) and Ben and Elaine. It’s tiresome to read and sheds little light on the protagonist himself. It is almost impossible to understand him and to connect with him in any way. He jumps from hoop to hoop and seems to fall in love with Elaine overnight, despite only ever going on a date with her to please Mr Robinson. He’s winy, but not in an endearing way, and seems hell bent on wasting away his future with an endeavor that lacks true authenticity.

There was no way I could be invested in Ben and as a result, I couldn’t enjoy the book. I found him to be tiresome and irritating, and wanted to give him a good shake. The premise of his situation could have been a poignant way in which Charles Webb explored the restlessness of coming out of university and the trials that post-graduate life brings. However, the dialogue driven prose lacked depth, authenticity, and intrigue, and does not allow for connections to be formed between the reader and the protagonist.

It took me less than a day to read, as reading through dialogue is a fairly fast process. Especially when the dialogues between different characters just repeat themselves. The prose offers nothing remarkable, no eye catching sentiments or images, but mere conversations and arguments between characters who never actually seem to like each other.

The story goes round and round and at times I almost laughed out loud at the ridiculousness. I find it hard to believe it has achieved the status of a “modern classic” but I suspect the 1968 adaptation into a film, staring Dustin Hoffman had a large role to play in it.

All in all, Ben was not an authentic character I could get behind and neither were his relationships. The story jumped about from start to finish and lacked any depth and coherency that could enable meaning. The themes were at first, plausible and interesting and were what drew me to the book. However, the protagonist, Ben, and the limited prose, made it impossible to render the promise of an American masterpiece possible.

Disappointing and probably not worth your time reading – although it only took me a day to finish from cover to cover. If you have read this and enjoyed it, do let me know. I may be missing something!

Book Review: Lonesome Traveler

Title: Lonesome Traveler

Author: Jack Kerouac

Genre: Short story, travelouge, fiction

Published: 1960/1990

Rating: ★★★★

Long time no see! If I’m honest I’ve been experiencing a bit of a reading slump, maybe I’ve been going too heavy during isolation… I also haven’t felt like writing much, so apologies for the lack of posts.

Jack Kerouac and the “Beat Generation”

I don’t usually write anything on an author’s background, but I feel it is useful for appreciating this book and Kerouac’s writing more generally. I read On The Road (1957) in my teens and fell in love with the dreamy writing, but never delved deeper into the context surrounding Kerouac’s work.

Kerouac is widely regarded as one of the fathers of the, “Beat Generation,” a group of American writers in the post war period who were exploring American culture and politics in a form that rejected the ‘traditional’ literary narrative. These novels cover aspects of religion, exploration and rejection of materialism. Additionally, the experience of being human are placed at the forefront, with documentation of drugs, alcohol, sexual liberation and ideas of self fulfillment. Other well known authors of the Beat Generation include William S Burroughs, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg.

Kerouac’s writing style outwardly rejects traditional literary devices, what he called, “simply poetry or natural description” deployed in Lonesome Traveler. The entirety of the novel is told through a spontaneous prose which jumps about between topics, people and places. Importantly, there is no coherency or structure – this was precisely what Kerouac was rejecting. Kerouac lived by, “first thought, best thought” and wasn’t a fan of revising his work, as he believed this was a form of “literary lying”.

The Beat Generation influenced the Counter cultural movements of the 1960s, due to its featuring of sexual liberation, prominent drug use and experimentation. However, the movement was made up of a pool of distinctly white, male authors. Women were incredibly absent. There were some female Beat authors including, Carolyn Cassady and Edie Parker, however, they never attained the same kind of success as male counterparts. In an interesting article, Lynette Lounsbury infers that female Beat authors were the “wives” to the male, literary greats of the period – never being appreciated on their own account.

It’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary this writing was – when we are now exposed to so much variation. An out right rejection of the literary form had never been fully attempted in the 1960s, and Kerouac was one of its pioneers. Today, we have the joys of postmodernism behind us, and authors such as Lucy Ellmann and Ali Smith – who abandon the constraints of the novel.

Overview

It is unclear (from what I’ve read) whether this is based on Keroauc’s own experience entirely, or meant as a more fictional account. Nevertheless, the story follows the journey of one man as he travels through America, Mexico, Morocco, Paris, London, and a desolate mountaintop. It contains the protagonists inner philosophy on life, and is a tale of human experience told through the documentation one man’s travels.

These travels are restless, filled with drug and alcohol abuse and women, but other times, a true insight into the human condition and our relationship with our surroundings. It’s poetic, pays homage to the beauty of nature and embodies the kind of free, liberation rhetoric which was beginning to emerge in 1960s.

Review

I love this book primarily because it is so against the grain of ‘typical’ literary fiction and challenges what we traditionally think of as a successful book – that being, having a coherent structure of a beginning, middle, and an end. Instead, Lonesome Traveler rejects these constrains and does its own thing. Today, it might not seem so original as we are readily exposed to so many different narrative forms, but considering the context, this really was one of a kind.

I love Kerouac’s prose style – he is rambling , descriptive and incoherent but occasionally, you stumble across something completely beautiful which makes you pause in amazement. I can appreciate his writing isn’t for everybody, as it is hard to follow, and I found this far harder to follow than On The Road. I had to concentrate hard to try and appreciate what was being said, but loved it all the same. The type of sensory prose Kerouac deploys enables the text to become so livable – at times, it is almost like you are experiencing what he is describing.

My favourite chapter or ‘short story’ was Alone on a Mountaintop. Before getting to this point, I admit, I was feeling somewhat disappointed with the book, but when I read this section I felt revived.

In this journey, he is alone for months on the top of a mountain, Desolation Peak, overlooking the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest on the Canada-US border. He only has a basic cabin and nature to keep him company. Through this experience of truly being alone, the narrator documents beautifully the human relationship with nature, the experience of complete solitude and what it means to be human. It takes the reader on a kind of self fulfillment and exploratory journey that is like no other,

“Because silence itself is the sound of diamonds which can cut through anything, the sound of Holy Emptiness, the sound of extinction and bliss, that graveyard silence which is the silence of an infant’s smile, the sound of eternity, of the blessedness surely to be believed…”

It regularly features ideas about God, religion, self fulfillment and self acceptance. Now, I’m not religious, but the way Kerouac speaks about religion makes me want to listen, as it feels beautiful and insightful,

“For when you realize that God is Everything you know that you’ve got to love everything no matter how bad it is, in the ultimate sense it was neither good nor bad (consider the dust), it was just what was, that is, what was made to appear…”

In a sense, the religious elements (apart from his thinking on Buddhism) do not come across as overly religious, but more, dwellings on the human condition and a kind of philosophy to live by.

All in all, I loved the prose and the subjects the narrator managed to breach. I like the element of simplicity it puts at the forefront of the travel experience – in a way, telling us to try and appreciate the forces of nature and our surroundings. The sex and drugs didn’t do much for me, but this is never the focus. The images created make me envious as I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write in that way, but I nonetheless reveled in their ability to take me to another time and place.

However – it is hard to follow and reading Kerouac is never easy. I can’t give it five stars as I did feel drained by it in some places, and it was only towards the end that I felt any kind of connection to the text. Importantly, I just liked the ‘feel’ of the book, it made me want to pack up a rucksack and run (when COVID-19 is over of course) to see the world for what it really is. To strip back the complications and appreciate life for how it is meant to be lived.

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.

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.”