literature

Reading Classics: Misconceptions & Pride

Part I of IV: Introduction

I love classics.

Whether it’s John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Orwell, I believe there is alot of benefit in reading the classics. Traditionally, ‘classics’ refers to the classical age in the Mediterranean Sea (think Greece, Italy, etc) during 8th Century BC to 6th century AD. Although I will not stick to that definition- I appreciate many works in that era. Valuable literature, after all, spans history from its beginnings to the depths of the future.

I’m writing this blog post after asking myself questions. Why are there so many misconceptions about classics? Is there a weird sense of pride at not reading the classics? Does reading Leo Tolstoy make you smarter? Are classics just written by dead white men?

Okay, I won’t snicker at the last question. I understand why people are asking them. Because of that, I will answer them in this blog post.

Part II of IV: The Difference Between Classics and ‘The Canon’

What is the difference between ‘the classics’ and ‘the canon?’

To put it simply: “The classics” are decided by ordinary people, whilst “The canon” is by literary critics, writers and professors. Now, there is alot of overlap. “The Great Gatsby” is both a ‘classic’ and part of ‘the canon.’ Adding onto that, I believe ‘The Canon’ is worthy of its own blog post. However, this post will be about classics.

So… what do I mean, that classics are decided by ordinary people?

Well, it’s partially economics. Ordinary people decide what they want to read. And book publishers, for the most part, will meet such demands. This creates an effect. Bookstores stock more classic books, increasing the accessibility to the general public. Classics tend to be on school reading lists and mentioned in pop culture.

The general public also vote in book polls done by media organisations such as the BBC. This is in vast contrast to prizes and awards. For example, the people who select the Man Booker Prize are a much smaller group with specific backgrounds. Winning a Booker Prize isn’t a sign of having written a classic. It’s about having literary merit.

So- if the literary ‘elite’ are concerned with literary merit, then what are the public concerned with? How does the average Joe deem what is a classic book? Well, it’s quite simple. A classic novel speaks to people. For instance, Lord of the Rings is a complete classic. Consider the themes of friendship, mercy, good versus evil, loyalty and death. They speak to many.

However, a book isn’t an automatic classic for speaking to a few people. A classic book will speak to multiple generations. For example, Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians is part of the Australian identity. Why? Because Turner’s work will appeal to Australians from a variety of ages and backgrounds.

If you are a writer who’d like to develop a classic- you can’t just appeal to the current, existing generations. Your novel must appeal to generations that haven’t even been born yet. This is a problem for many writers. We aren’t fortune tellers, we don’t know what the future holds for children that haven’t been born yet.

Writers could think about what themes are universal. For example, Macbeth explores notions about power and corruption. This is despite being written centuries back!

However, what makes Macbeth a classic isn’t the evergreen themes but William Shakespeare’s perspective. Classic literature rewards novels and plays that add something new and fresh to ongoing discussions about politics, society, humanity, science and religion.

From that, we can gather the characteristics of a classic novel:

  • Inter-generational appeal (“standing the test of time”)
  • Having a unique perspective or way of articulating information and ideas
  • (To A Varying Degree) Literary merit.

I like Charles Dickens for that reason. His writing expresses the deep human condition amongst a 19th century backdrop. Dickens is an author with plenty to say.

Part III of IV: The Relevance of Classics

Statue of Dante Alighieri in Florence, Italy

Influences

Classics are widely read, best selling and often referenced. In my opinion, we should celebrate classic literature. So many of our books are inspired by established classics. For example, I’m a big George R.R Martin fan (of A Song of Ice And Fire fame). That means that I’ll read Tolkien and Robert Frost. As Tolkien was inspired by folklore, fairytales, religion, languages and myths… that opens my eyes to literary greatness. Frost, was of course, influenced by Dante and Milton. Therefore, literature is forever referencing what came before it.

Identity Politics In Fiction

However, (some) problems people have with classics is about identity. There seems to be this presumption- that most of classical literature is written by dead white men who had no idea what they were talking about. This is a bad way to look at literature.

The merits of a book should not be viewed by the author’s ‘identity.’ You are more than welcome to use race or gender as a way to understand an authors work- but dismissing a novel because the author is of a certain race is terrible. Personally, I’m not a fan of cultural or Marxist theory. I believe literary analysis requires far more than looking at someones skin colour or how much money they earned.

It’s also pathetic, to be honest. Imagine reading Oliver Twist– a gorgeous book- and your one take-away is that its written by a white man. Plenty of classic literature has been written by a variety of people, of different races and cultures.

Every person is different. And that means every author is unlike another. Sure, Far From The Maddening Crowd and Ulysses were both written by white men. Yet Hardy and Joyce are two different people who had their own distinct voices. Considering literature can be seen as individualistic expression, it’s incorrect to dismiss an author’s work because of race.

It’s important to understand that alot of classic literature isn’t in the english language. Certain genres of Spanish literature will provide a more diverse reading experience than other languages. Translation is a huge topic that’s being discussed. It’s important to keep that in mind when people bring race or class into literary discussions.

“Problematic” Literature & The Benefits of Reading

Reading encourages creativity and analytical thought. Talk about brain food!

Some people suggest that classics are ‘problematic.’ We may cringe at a liberal usage of a racial slur, for example. However, we must consider the time it was written in. Doing that is not excusing bigotry. If you are upset by a ‘classic’ that uses vulgarity- then it’s okay for you to not read it. As much as I love classics, I understand that not everyone is going to like every single one of them. Don’t feel bad if you have no interest in reading certain classics. That’s perfectly okay! Literature and reading is about freedom.

Don’t feel pressured. Reading a book won’t magically make you smarter. However, it’s an exciting opportunity for you to think. Alot of the debate about classics regards to whether or not reading classics makes you intelligent. Personally? Reading out of a desire to be ‘smarter’ will result in unhappiness and overdue library fines.

However, reading improves your own literary skills.

Some other benefits of reading:

  • Keeps your mind active.
  • Challenges your beliefs and presumptions.
  • Helps develop critical thinking and analyical. skills.
  • Encourages empathy and wisdom.

That’s pretty awesome! I think viewing reading as an ‘IQ point booster’ is rather shallow. Literature offers many benefits besides ‘intellect.’

It’s a shame that people take pride in not reading Austen or Dickens. They were like anyone else living today: flawed people in flawed times, and expressing themselves through the only way they could.

Part IV of IV: Conclusion

I hope I’ve made several points clear.

  • Classics are important, and deserve to be read
  • Classics deserve the respect given to them by the public
  • You are completely free to read any book you want

Ultimately, I think classics are fantastic.

It’s awesome when a book speaks to multiple generations. It’s also amazing when a book is brave enough to make a difference in the world. Reading classics isn’t about appearing smart or cultured. It’s about something bigger- and better.

Enough about me! What about you? What are your favourite classic novels? Thoughts on current discussions about the relevancy of classics? Comment below, I’d love to read your thoughts!

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Read Another Literature Post: “Problematic Media Does Not Need Fixing.”

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3 comments

  1. I followed your blog a few moments ago while reading through a few of your posts (I love classics readers and creative writers, for I am both), but now I’m going to unfollow. Not because I disagree with some of what you say, but because your frequent assessment of people’s feelings on books as “shallow” and “pathetic” is tiresome to read. I’ve never unfollowed a blog before, and I actually tend to be fairly open-minded. I even see where you’re going with some of your arguments, but I don’t find your remarks on others’ reading tastes and feelings particularly constructive.

    I am ALL ABOUT being direct and honest. The world needs more of that. Make waves. Change the world. But I feel you could make your point without dismissing the (more liberal) arguments you dislike as “pathetic.” Your remarks on reading through race within this post read like your opinion laced with irritation, elitism, and arrogance. You cannot change the world by alienating your readers because you disagree and feel like saying so because you own your right to free speech (which is how calling half your readers’ feelings “pathetic” that struck me). Any hack can call someone pathetic. That’s not an argument. A writer elegantly respects the other side while gently stabbing holes in their position and helping them see something different. Whether they’re writing a novel, an editorial, or a paper.

    My sincere advice as a fellow writer and lover of literature would be to respect all of your readers, as well as their life views, and share yours with deliberation and class. Absolutely address what you view as in need of addressing (p[lease, please do!), but remember that writing is a conversation. Seriously consider all sides of an argument, and if you decide your conclusion is the right one, deliver it with grace, strength, and empathy. That is how to change the world.

    Feel free to delete this comment. I mean it for your privately, as constructive feedback and nothing more. I can see you want to make a career out of writing and are very young (25 and an undergrad — best of luck with that!! Sincerely.) But you cannot see how you sound until someone takes the time to point it out. And if having been told you choose to ignore this feedback, I wish you all the very best in your career.

    For an example of debating an argument similar to yours but with class and elegance, I’d recommend a read of my acquaintance Brian’s post: http://briansbabblingbooks.blogspot.com/2019/07/white-fragility-by-robin-diangelo.html

    That’s how to make waves. Take your time, be thorough, be courageous, and be open.

    All the best, jill.

    1. Hi, thank you for your message and feedback. It is never my intention to upset or offend any reader, and I appreciate you telling me how my language comes across. Whilst I can’t repair any issues I’ve caused, I will try better going forward. Thank you for typing a post that you probably didn’t want to.

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