Book Review: Classic Literature: To Read or Not To Read?

Vast debate surrounds the value of classical literature in an age in which Kindles have overtaken paperback books, in which e–libraries and online stores are preferred to actual libraries, and in which, most sadly of all, no–one reads aloud to one another anymore, but instead prefer to sit together and watch the film adaptation of a book. Does any value actually remain in reading the classics of our literary canon? Or have these formerly–beloved books of the past now lost their relevance? Should we, instead, turn to contemporary books, indulging in the exploits of a ‘shopaholic’, or the magical worlds of Harry Potter and The Hobbit?

It is undeniable that we no longer live in the same world as Shakespeare, in which men dressed in tights and women were passive love objects. Nor do we live in Austen’s world, in which the social convention of marrying for money over love was prevalent. Certainly the humour of Shakespeare’s puns is lost upon many modern readers, and his plays are, unfortunately, most commonly read today under the strain of a classroom setting by bored, dutiful students, who consequently fail to appreciate so much of the plays’ visual and audible qualities. Austen’s irony, too, has lost much of its relevance, and her extraordinary position on marital views is no longer radical, but often dismissed as insignificant. Even Elizabeth Gaskell’s cry against exploitation of the working–class no longer maintains the same resonance in an environment in which equality laws have been introduced.

Just as the context in which these once–revered authors wrote comes from a time long past, so the situations, avocations and dilemmas faced by their characters may be considered as equally irrelevant today. In accordance with Sidney’s definition, the purpose of novels ought to be “dolcere, delectare, movere”: to teach, delight, and move the reader. With a context that is no longer relevant, it would be easy to suggest that classic novels ultimately fail to do this; they no longer offer us relevant lessons, nor can they move us in the midst of our radically different society. Furthermore, their humour is outdated, resulting in a failure to delight the reader. In short, they are outdated, irrelevant, and unnecessary to our lives today.

And yet, are TV soaps necessary to our lives? Are recreational drugs always relevant in any situation? Is it only through technology, mobile phones, Internet and social media that we can keep up–to–date, informed and successful? Of course not. These are luxuries. Similarly, literature itself doesn’t have to be relevant, or necessary; it, too, can be a luxury, an indulgence in the same way as TV, drugs, or technology. Therefore, why should we not continue to enjoy and to consume it? Just because the label ‘classic’ is attached to it, this by no means suggests that it should be more challenging, or less enjoyable and luxurious, to read. Although classics often have this stereotype attached to them, this label should not necessarily be a negative thing, nor should it invoke an unwillingness to read these books. While their relevance may be lacking, their enjoyment remains, and this should not be a preconception of the fact that they are labelled as ‘classics’.

Therefore, just as classic cars are valued highly, so too should classic literature be. It may no longer serve its original purpose, but it remains a form of art to be valued, an entertainment to enjoy, and an indulgence that should never be forgotten. Whether or not we should read classics is a separate debate, but one thing is for sure: we shouldn’t not read classics!

Written by Genevieve Cox

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