by Alex Daud Briggs
Throughout our childhood there were a number of books that were pushed on us to read and appreciate, stories that have supposedly shaped society and revolutionised the culture we see today. Unfortunately, there’s often a chance that upon actually reading through these, they may seem just a bit dull. But why is that? These are some of the best works of all time, or at least they’re supposed to be. So why is it that so many of us just can’t get into classic literature?
I think it goes without saying that a big reason for this dislike is the fact that a lot classic novels are so heavily pushed down our throats. As kids, parents and teachers can be a nag. They often talk down on entertainment that most of us liked such as video games or television and instead encouraged us to pick up a book, but not just any book, the dusty old tome from 300 years ago with characters that speak nothing like how a modern person does.
I can’t help but think that this rigorous elitist attitude from the proponents of the classics is a big part of the problem. Perhaps not so much nowadays, but there used to be a notion in my relatives, their cliques, and at school that if you didn’t enjoy the classics, you must be stupid or less educated. Perhaps that’s a generational thing, but this is something that personally caused me and many other kids I knew to resent classics and reading for leisure as a whole for years to come. It made picking up a book feel like a chore, something you did not because it was fun but because you were told you had to do it by some snooty adult.
This also creates a sense of ‘overhype’ with the classics. We’re constantly told how deep and life changing the works of Shakespeare, Dickens or Verne. Needless to say, no matter how good some of them may be, after being played up to the extent that they are they may never live up to the expectations we place on them, and as such come off as drabber and duller. I distinctly remember I had an English teacher that said Shakespeare couldn’t be criticised and all I could remember at the time was how many things I would rather be doing than reading The Tempest at the time.
Ultimately though, much of the reason classics come across as boring to us modern audiences are the fact that literature, like any other form of entertainment, is subjective to each person. This is especially true when said material was written centuries prior to the date we’re living in, as trends in writing have changed. Older books tend to be much slower paced and take longer to explain certain ideas or concepts. Moby Dick, for example, spends half of its length giving dry prose about whaling and marine life. Informative, yes, but not the very interesting as a story.
Being made in a different time also means classics reflected different periods with differing social rules that may not apply to our modern world. For example, as a fan of horror fiction, when I went back to read older authors like Lovecraft and Machen, I found both to be simply not scary. This is due to the fact that things that scared people in the early 20th century such as ‘fish people’ have since been reproduced numerous times in pop culture to the point that we’re all used to seeing them. I certainly appreciate that they were the innovators of such ideas that would go on to influence many others, but that does not change the fact that I just don’t get the same chills that a person of 1931 would.
Of course, on the other hand, part of subjectivity is that certain classics still hold up in the lives of certain readers and with our frequently changing world. Concepts that are old may once again become relevant. When former President Donald Trump started spouting about fake news and alternate facts, it was no surprise that 1984, a story about how the media can be used to change reality in the minds of the public, appeared again on the best seller list. Most classics ultimately stick around for a reason. Maybe not everyone will appreciate them, but there are still many who find the writing in classic’s still reflects their modern life.
At the end of the day classic literature is really no different than any other literature, or any other form of media for that matter. Whether you like it or not depends on who you are as an individual. Despite what nagging parents say, whether or not you read them doesn’t make you smarter or dumber than anyone else. There are millions of books published every year. If you think a book, classic or not, speaks to your tastes then give it a read.