Enter any book store, physical or digital, and you will inevitably find the classics section. A section in which you always know exactly what you will find. The Bronte’s, Austen, Lawrence, Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy and so on. There is little variation, and little change or forward momentum, there may be a modern classics section also, but you are unlikely to see these books integrated with each other. (In light of this, no list, if you want to find the classics I’ve told you where they are, off you go!)
So why then do these classics remain ‘classic’? What is it about them which renders them classic reading, go to teaching tools, go to inspiration?
First of all, and I suppose somewhat obviously, if they were rubbish, we just wouldn’t still be reading them. No book remains clearly in the public consciousness for 100, 200, 300, or many more years, if it isn’t worth reading. If you meet a fan of literature, even if their tastes lie in a more modern genre or style of writing, it is highly unlikely they will not have read/know in depth at least a good few classics. Myself for example, science fiction, fantasy, dystopia nut, will be found, multiple times a year holding a Dickens or Austen novel in my hand.
Next up, it is a cultural thing. If you miss out on the classics, you miss out on a lot of things, they are referenced in so many places and in so many ways. I was recently watching the TV show White Collar in which a main character Mozzie, makes constant little reference to moments, characters etc from literature that you could, of course, survive not knowing, but that add just a little something extra when you’re aware of them. And this is just one recent example I can think of, I often find myself using a quote or reference to a classic novel in everyday conversation. So to miss them would mean missing out.
Next, and on a similar note, to learn where some ideas and concepts we know grew up, or even in some cases began. There are only so many narratives out there, (there are millions of things which can be done with them, but really ideas are finite) anyone who has studied literature will have had the joy of studying something like, the Monomyth, or the hero’s journey, the quest narrative structure.
Though something like this is only a guide and not every narrative with a quest or adventure fits it exactly it is still a useful tool. And what it shows us is that by reading the classics we can see the origin of certain narratives and ideas, and see how they have been adapted and co-opted into newer literature. And whilst it is not necessary to know these things in order to enjoy a modern novel, it adds an extra layer. It is always fun to spot where an idea has come from, and reading modern rewrites and seeing what they retain and what they lose is always an interesting activity. An example would be Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, described by the author as an homage to E.M.Forster’s Howards End. Personally I much prefer the original, but that’s preference and everyone is different, but reading both and attempting to match up characters and themes, and see where they join or divulge is a useful exercise not just in literature but in understanding our changing times, attitudes, concerns, and cultures.
On a personal level, for comfort, you know what you’re going to get. With regard to my above statement that I will often be found with a novel by Dickens or Austen in my hand, I am almost always re-reading. Though I do not claim to have read all the classics, in fact there are many on my list that I really need to get to, (Anna Karenina how have I not read you?!) but there is something quite comforting about returning to a classic novel you know and love. A lot of this is to do with many of the reasons above, the way literature permeates and underlies much of our culture, its unchanging nature means you always know what you’re going to get. It does what it says on the tin!
Linked to these last two ideas, to make us better writers, understanding what has gone before, what has been done, what can be done, makes us a better writer. They fuel ideas in our minds, and further being able to make similar allusions and references to these things in our own works, makes them better. It adds depth and resonance and an extra layer. And whilst we’re on the subject of making us better writers, they are well written. This is not to say that modern novels aren’t, but in a world of self-publishing and vanity publishing, there is a lot of rubbish out there. I am absolutely all for the publishing revolution, allowing wonderful undiscovered talents who would never get a chance to share their voice, to shine. But in a world with so so many books reaching the market, it can be hard to find something truly good, well written and worth the read. In times passed it was much harder to get to the point of publication, and often times women had to use a nom de plume in order to ever reach that stage. The Bronte’s as Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell, and George Eliot being Mary Ann Evans by birth. If it made it far enough to reach publication, it had to be good!
They’re easily accessible, this one is quite simple. I have a lot of classics, I have multiple copies of multiple classics, and so many of them cost me very little. I buy them second hand at charity shops, and specialised charity shops selling only books, I get a book, and some money goes to charity, what’s not to love!
And finally, to return to the first point, because we love them! They are classics, because we love them, and we love them because they are classic. And though we may not love each and every one of them (looking at you Villette), there is a reason they remain so collectively in our consciousness, they are worth the read!