I was watching a rather old video that Jess (ReadByJess) uploaded over a year ago about whether classics were overhyped and it got me thinking about some of the points she raised. So, if you like, this blog post is a response to/in conversation with that video which I shall link here.
I do love reading the occasional classic from time to time. I’ll admit they do intimidate me and I have plenty of classics on my shelves which remain unread. Reading what is generally considered to be a classic takes more time for me because extra attention is required in order to take in every detail on the page.
Obviously, for university, I am required to read quite a few classics and I consider myself so lucky to be able to go in every week, discuss these books and develop my understanding of them. I definitely feel that I wouldn’t enjoy these books as much if I didn’t have that opportunity to discuss them.
One of the topics Jess brings up in her video is about the relevance of classics in the 21st century. I agree that, for many of the issues raised in books from the 19th or 18th century, we have moved on and developed so those problems are certainly less prominent now and I continue to believe that we should celebrate this fact. However, sometimes when I read a classic/discuss it at uni, I find myself thinking “but that could, and does, happen now” and it’s painfully heartbreaking. Sure enough the setting and the background to the stories have changed, but they are still happening even if that is in less extreme ways.
Another thought that came into my head whilst on the topic of relevance is that these books have shaped the literature we get today. Some of these books acted as stepping-stones for newer writers. They open doors for people who previously would have felt they didn’t have the chance to tell their stories. One of my favourite things to look at when I’m at university is how different literary movements influenced a new one, but that could be the history nerd within me.
Another very valid point that Jess brings up in her video is about the hierarchy that there is within the genre of classics. Most of the classics which are held up on a pedestal were written by straight, white, well-off men – in fact the vast majority of them were. It’s so important that we acknowledge this. There’s nothing else I can really say about this other than using this fact to make sure we change so the majority of the books we get now and written by a variety of authors who represented all the minorities who have previously gone without a voice.
Jess also brings up the hierarchy around genres of literature and quite rightly says that generally speaking, classics come at the top. Firstly, I think having a hierarchy of what is to be considered is more literary is a tad ridiculous and secondly, just read what you wan to read! Never force yourself to read something because “you feel you should as a reader.” If you have a feeling that you aren’t going to enjoy a classic (or a book from any genre if we’re honest), don’t waste your time on it. Read something you’ll enjoy!
So whilst I agree that classics aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to literature and that whilst I enjoyed Jane Eyre when I read it, it hasn’t stuck with me like a book perhaps should, I do think classics still have their place. There is a lot to learn from the collection of books we consider to be classics even in the 21st century.
Please let me know your thoughts on this discussion. Do you like classics or do you tend to stay away from them? I’m super intrigued to find out your thoughts.