Classic literature: ‘Boring’ or relevant?
January 25, 2012 | 9:45 pm
I came across a rather interesting pair of posts on BookRiot today. Cassandra Neace opined that there’s no point in reading “the classics” anymore, because they are essentially boring—no four-letter words or sex and violence (because those classic writers were far too couth to include any such things), and too many dead white males. (Ah, how Roger Mifflin would cringe.)
Amanda Nelson wrote a longer and amusing rebuttal, pointing out that a lot of classics became classics because they pushed the boundaries of couth for their day. (Indeed, some of them, such as Huckleberry Finn, continue to be controversial right up to the present day!) She also points out that just because the sex and violence might be toned down in some of the works, that does not mean they are not there. (Indeed, I don’t know why people always have this idea of Victorian society as being prim and repressed. As a rule, the more repressed and respectable a front Victorians presented, the more carnal thoughts they were having in the privacy of their own minds.)
And Nelson also points out that a lot of those “dead white males” (and the occasional dead white female) wrote works focusing on injustice and the social causes of their day, such as slavery, women’s rights, the plight of the poor, and political oppression.
Of course, one more excellent reason for reading the classics is that, in this era of agency priced DRM-locked e-books, most of the classics are in the public domain and available free on-line. There are so many amazing books out there to be had at no charge, it’s like having a library of the wisdom of the ages instantaneously at your beck and call.
Over the last few weeks, I have been working my way through some of Jules Verne’s better (and a few lesser) known novels, since Google Books is one of the few websites I can access from work, and discovering they were very different from what I had been led to believe. They were exciting and entertaining, and just as fun to read now as when they were originally written. I also read and enjoyed all the stories of Sherlock Holmes that are in the public domain, and a couple of very interesting histories of playing cards by Mrs. John King Van Rensselaer, a very interesting woman about whom I would love to know more.
Of course, it’s not really too surprising that people are more interested in focusing on the new these days. We hunger for novelty, and think that “old” means “boring”. (It’s hard to get anyone to watch even black and white, let alone silent, films these days.) But if people could get past their preconceptions, I think they would find some of that great old stuff can be more novel than ever.