Tuesday, 2 July 2013

How About Reading the Classics?

My book collection is very odd. I have classic books that I love -- Medieval, Romantic, Victorian, Modernist,  Contemporary -- all jammed up next to each other and piled on top of one another in no particular system, and interspersed with recent science fiction books, thrillers and more. What I like is stories, and I love all media that tell stories. Everyone (probably) has books that they would personally consider classics, even if they're pulpy adventure books or romances, and that's okay. But I'd like to put a case forward for reading some books you may not have tried from The Classics. Reading older books is often considered an irrelevant chore. They may even have been 'ruined' for you by some awful high school teachers. But they really are useful, and with the right mindset, reading them can turn out to be some of your favourite experiences. So, why read the classics?

1. The 'olden days' are not a thing
When are the classics set? They're set in 'the olden days', right? This is that perfect time when everyone was polite, children listened to their parents and nobody had sex, or even wanted to. Ever. For maybe 2000 years, everyone is meant to have lived in these mysterious 'olden days'. There's this strangely common idea that the modern world is the only time rapid societal change has ever happened or affected anyone personally. Things like the invasion of 'barbarians' and Romans, the Industrial Revolution, the discovery of the New World, human rights and rights for women, the invention of weapons of mass destruction, the first missions into space (space! think about it), profoundly affected the people who witnessed them (and these are mainly examples we know from western, English-speaking society). We can hardly say that these developments, and many other less talked-about ones, were less important to the people of the time than the rise of American cultural dominance, the internet and global terrorism were to the world today, and the end of apartheid was to us in South Africa. There are as many individual genres, stories and ideas in the classics than there are in the stories we consume now. Reading books written in other social and historical contexts gives a window into a place and time that is unlike, and similar to our own.

2. You don't read to experience what you experience every day
Fantasy and science fiction are very popular genres. Readers love being transported to different, well-constructed societies and settings, and old books do the same, except they may not be as generous with the exposition. If you're going to escape, you may as well also have the option of escaping to another time and place that really existed (or another time's perspective on one that didn't), and have the added bonus of learning about the way that real societies worked and the values they may have had that may not be the same as those you assumed they would have. Characters (and authors) can have revolutionary worldviews that were not necessarily popularised or passed on in modern culture as indicative of a certain generation.

3. People never change
This may be a personal belief, but, while societies change, and beliefs change, people's core natures stay the same. People have the same motivations (love, hate, lust, survival, greed, a wish to have control or security...), and these echo what you see now. A new perspective (for you) on an aspect of human nature can be a revelation that affects you for life, and the more of these perspectives you expose yourself to, the better. The fact that someone made an observation long before you were born doesn't make it less valid. On top of this, the topics that the many, many books available to you deal with are inspired by people. Did old people never talk about, or experience things that we consider 'edgy' now? Sex, violence, profanity and more are all available to you, if potential stuffiness is what's putting you off.

4. Because nobody is telling you how to feel about them now 
If the other three points haven't been convincing, then maybe this one will be better. If you studied books or plays at school, you were often tested on them, and made to learn and study ready-made interpretations. I admit that I was not particularly brilliant at high school English lit for this reason. The liberating thing is realising that you are allowed to dislike a book without anyone telling you that it's wrong to, or that its 'uncultured' or that you're 'too stupid to get it'. You can just stop reading if you're not interested. Just because a book's a classic doesn't mean that it has universal appeal, and you don't even have to think that it's any good. You can file old alongside new, and have your own personal classics. And, importantly, you can take whatever message you want from the books that you read. It doesn't even matter if it was the author's intended message. The only thing that matters is that you get to figure things out for yourself and expose yourself to ideas beyond the same ideas that we are exposed to every day, and break out of the 'ordinary' mindset for our time and context. You can meet some brilliant characters without some boring schoolmarm's version of them affecting your own. You can even try a few books and then totally dismiss my views, if you like.

So, recommendations. How about trying (from easiest to most challenging):

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland  You know the story. But really, the details in Caroll's original are witty, silly and just way better than any adaptation you've seen.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes With the number of crime and detective stories we see today, it may be interesting to see some of the first. And if you enjoyed the BBC's Sherlock, reading these stories will show you all sorts of great easter eggs.

Jorge Luis Borges' Ficciones A true master of speculative fiction (if that's even what his short stories are), Borges experiments with all kinds of 'what if' situations that are unmatched to this day.

The Picture of Dorian Gray A story of debauchery and corruption with a supernatural twist. Need I say more?

The stories of H.P. Lovecraft You haven't read these? Oh, come on. Unfathomable terrors await!

Jane Eyre Romance, a brilliant critique of religion's bond with society, witty banter, a little horror, and almost anachronistic-seeming feminism. It's famous for a reason.

Crime and Punishment Do you like Dexter for the way that it takes the murderer's point of view? This novel is a thought-provoking whydunnit that gives insight into what 19th-century St Petersburg was like.

Many books are available as free ebooks on Project Gutenberg or second hand, so that may be helpful. You may even like to use Sparknotes (or even the brilliant Thug Notes) to get up to speed on the major points of a book. Reading up on historical issues or unknown terms on Wikipedia could also make many things clearer and provide context (your fantasy- and sci-fi-style world-building and exposition). So, how about reading the classics?

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