A few months ago I decided to finally read War and Peace. I felt rather bad for being so behind on my classic literature reading list and I had a huge craving for Russian literature (the way I do every now and then) with all the fighting and failed attempts at romance, and maybe some soulless but good looking bastards on top of that. Turns out though – no one is printing War and Peace in Polish anymore. I mean no one. No-one.
This led me to many more-or-less witty observations, mostly on the state of the Polish publishing business and what a horrible place it must be…But more than that it made me wonder – why don’t we read classics anymore? Are they really so unpopular that if they don’t make the cut onto some schools’ reading lists, they have no place in our society? But they have so much to offer!
So here I am, on a follow-up to my, surprisingly popular, post on reading philosophers – and the other one on reading poetic prose. Poetry is probably the next in line; but for today, I have just one question: Why should we read classics?
(Disclaimer: By classics I do mean what we often refer to as classic literature, antiquity included. It seems as if the English language does not want to cooperate with me today in finding a better term. Sorry.)
By the way – don’t worry, buns, after much drama I did get myself my own War and Peace. Printed in 1979 but it truly does look like I may be its first reader.
Classics show the world that used to be
If you have any interest in history, the first point on this list is really a no-brainer. If you read classics, especially the ones set far far far in the past, you will see the world that has been – even if sometimes it is slightly tinted.
What we often fail to remember – and I am as guilty of this as anyone – is that what we call classics used to be contemporary once upon a time. Yes, even old medieval poems were written in some form of present. And even if they did touch on the most abstract subjects and were some sort of… old futuristic sci-fi writing that feels really bizarre to us, the people of the future, they do still contain plenty of valuable information on what the world was like once upon a time, way back then.
And sure, since a great many of these works of art were written as grand historical events were unfolding, there is a bias included in all of them, one by one. But please remember that history, as such, is written by the victors – and so our memory of the past holds the same bias too, just slightly more in favour of whatever the current way of thinking is.
But they also show us the world as it is
We do not live in complete detachment from our past… I assume. If that is indeed true that the world is continuous and somehow stable, we are not much more than the sum of our past selves and our world is as much the sum of its past self too.
Reading classics gives us a great insight into how we became what we became and, in this way, it helps us understand society as it currently stands. Knowing the origins of certain behaviours and ideas may not satisfy more than our curiosity; but often it is a clue to understanding them fully and accepting them for what they are.
So, next time you start banging your head on the wall over yet another new crazy event of the 21st century, maybe it is the classics you need to go to get to the heart of this matter (The Heart of the Matter, by the way is a great book). Even the most complex and extreme ideas didn’t just fall out of a tree one day and even if they are indeed wrong on oh so many levels – there may well be hundreds of years of reasoning and history behind them.
Classics help us deglamourize the past
There is this one poem Polish kids always have to read at school, I mean to the extent that it gives anti-poetry spirits amongst them nightmares, and it is called Why the classics? Its author, Zbigniew Herbert, is one of my favourite poets and he is more than worthy of your attention; but this time, this time I will have to go against him.
Why the classics? calls for glorification of the past. It shows us the heroes of antiquity and how noble they are in comparison to the people we know right now. Don’t read old books to make yourself feel like the world right now is such a let-down in comparison to what it used to be.
Read classics to realize that the people of the past were as complicated and as rotten as we are.
Ever since I told Ravel Puzzlewell that nothing can change the nature of a man, I have been a very strong believer in this very philosophy and I am afraid you are just about to taste a little sample of my preaching. But what can I do? The more classics I read, the more I realize they are full of people just like us, making the same mistakes over and over again, although their circumstances may seem very different at first glance.
That is one thing classics can do for us – make us despise ourselves less or, what is more important, to stop blaming the century, the people, the world, civilization, progress… stop blaming anything we can blame for the states of our lives. The world has never been a magical unicorn of rainbows and happiness. Bad things always happened. Bad people always happened.
Classics are a great insight into alien perspectives
All that being said, since circumstances did differ back in the not-so-good old days, there are a great many things we can learn from the classics that would be uncommon or nearly non-existent nowadays. As the moral compass of the world shifts around, it is through the books of past that we can experience ideas now crazy to our modern sensibilities in a controlled and very safe environment.
Ever wondered what it was like to stand against a great foe alongside your trusty companions? Then open some Remarque instead of signing yourself up to the army. Way less children will be orphaned thanks to that.
Of course, this argument can be made for almost any reading – and it will hold no less true. But (feel free to call me a literary snob – I am one and I am very proud of it) classics open doors to greater minds and greater ideas. Not because they were particularly brave or smart or heroic, their stories also did not have to be full of adventure and fame. They had something else to stand for them and that was the skill and passion of their writer, often lacking in the 100th crime story published each year, straight from the market research and filtered through an executive board somewhere.
I am not saying good books don’t get written nowadays. Of course they do. But other than for few notable examples (cough, Henryk Sienkiewicz, cough) they have already withstood the test of time – the most difficult test of them all.
Although they hold plenty of universal truths
The main argument against reading classics I still remember from my school times is wasting time on outdated material. And that is true in a great many cases of books that we, or our nation, hold on to for no reason other than pride in what has been accomplished. It saddens me greatly that we force these on the kids who then get a very bad idea on how the classics world really look like – but it happens a lot. I mean, A LOT.
But there are true pearls amongst the classics, books that are never to grow old and that is because instead of focusing on their times, trends and needs, they toy with more abstract concepts. Books that embrace the universal truths or at least try to question them. Books that don’t just portray reality – but try to understand it as well.
You can learn more about yourself from these classics than you can learn from many books popular right now, so obsessed with showing us a mirror image of here and now that they will fade into oblivion next week, month, year. That is what makes classics wonderful for me, that is where the magic of great book lies– that I can pick it up from the shelf hundreds of years later in a different country, different language, surrounded by a culture that did not rise from the culture that gave birth to this book and still relate to it.
Classics give us a distance to face our demons
And there is one more thing about relating to classics, that may sound a bit controversial, but it is, at least for me, true:
Classics let us look deeply into the darkest parts of ourselves.
Often contemporary art tries and fails to touch on sensitive subjects, over and over again hitting the same hurdle of people simply being… not ready to talk about it. And yet for generations we have been talking about the exact same problems, they are nothing new to people; it is just attaching them to current situations that makes a particular piece slightly too familiar for us to feel comfortable with.
For some reason, one that many psychologists would probably be happy to explain to me, characters from classics seem just… more fictional than characters from books written right now. They are not, but they feel this way. Their crimes and passions, and flaws are less real than their contemporary equivalents’.
Art needs what is often referred to as psychological distance – and classics never fail to deliver on that.
I could never see myself fascinated with the beast of Christian Gray (Grey?), more than that, I find the topic of some rich man abusing a completely clueless, little girl rather disgusting in a lot of ways, shapes and forms. But I have found myself fascinated with Stavrogin, and I watched him abuse Lizavieta left, right and centre, and it is not just the quality of Dostoyevsky’s writing that made me not even bat an eyelid.
Stavrogin could never be my contemporary. The Russia that was, isn’t anymore. He could never threaten me as he is just a relic of his époque. And although what he stands for has withstood the trial of time, this very need to feel something, to be something, to… at the cost of another human being or even hundreds of them, even though all of this survived in us, humans, Stavrogin could never walk down my street.
And none of this needs to be boring
This all being said, there is one final, very good reason to read classics – they are fun.
Personally, I do love my plot-less, dragging-a-lot-full novels that hardly ever end on one tome; but I do understand that is not true for the vast majority of people. But the truth is, classics vary – they are as full of styles and ideas as anything else, and there are plenty of tastes that they can cater for.
Lots of them are true page turners. Even War and Peace, the sheer size of it was giving me a headache, but it seems that I am going through it like a storm and what I imagined to be my whole summer read, may turn out to be a week-long affair.
Many people get either turned off or simply discouraged at the thought that a particular book is old, long or, worst of all, recommended by academics. But the important thing to remember is that classics are just books – sure, they were written at different times and we somehow collectively decided that they are of good quality, but they are JUST books. It is our choice to read them that makes them so so much more.
And Nancy the Panda, of course.