Yes I really believe the classics are an indulgence, as I find are all *good* books (and I know that if you are happening across this blog on a publishing website you are likely sympathetic to this claim and I have you on side, which is always a relief when writing), but the classics particularly appeal to me with a warm mug of tea and an evening bubble bath. First, stating the obvious, they are older than modern novels, so they immediately take us to a world which is not familiar to our present-day society, and so quickly one can escape the busyness of 21st century life and join characters in an age where Facebook and iPhones did not exist. We can be in the land where we are undisturbed, a land which is so unfamiliar that we can don’t recognise ourselves in it. We can be anonymous and let our imagination create the smells, clothes and colours of history, whilst we allow the writer to take us to that world as we are introduced to somewhere new.
But it is not too unfamiliar. We can still engage with the feelings and conscience of the characters, their aspirations, fears, self-perceptions and their relationships with others. In fact, what a classic illuminates, and what is really quite remarkable or maybe unsurprising to the astute amongst us, is that human beings are human beings in 19th century Russia as much as they are human beings in my West London office. It is this timelessness within a specific time that makes a novel remembered hundreds of years after it is written, and qualifies it as a classic. So it is both the simultaneous freedom and imagination conjured up by the ‘unknown’ past, alongside our profound intimacy with this world as we recognise that we know it well and it somehow knows us, which makes a classic such a delight.
I said above that any good book is an indulgence, but the reason why I initially began my journey through the classics, was that I was pretty certain that if a book were a classic, it would be good. There is something about its longevity, its famous name, the fact that it is an option on school A-Level syllabuses that ensures us we can trust that it will be a good read. In such a fast paced technological age, where time has become one of our most precious resources, I, for one, do not want to experiment with a book. Even with modern novels, we want to know a book is critically acclaimed to ensure we do not waste our time on it. But we know a classic has stood the test of time, it has been read and recommended, generation after generation.
Of course, they are often long (800 pages of Anna Karenina, my current read, is weighing down my bag on the tube), they are written in a slightly unintelligible rhetoric compared to our colloquial modern style, and sometimes they may allude to themes or events specific to that context, which the modern reader might not pick up on without a study guide. How much I probably missed when I read Animal Farm, given I never took history classes on the Russian revolution. However, once I got passed these barriers, I would go as far as saying that each one of the classics I have read so far, has changed my life, or less dramatically, led me to adjust my outlook, even just a bit.
Jane Austen’s Persuasion taught me the importance of trusting my gut in matters of the heart, as Anne Elliot made the mistake of rejecting Wentworth because of the advice of an older and ‘wiser’ confidant, who is proved wrong and whom Austen castigates in her great final didactic chapter. Madame Bovary showed me that I felt trapped in domestic life. I did not connect to the protagonist because I was an adulteress, but I understood her motives enough to realise I should leave a desperately unhappy relationship. Dinah in Eliot’s Adam Bede showed me a woman who lived out her values and beliefs without concern that she did not conform to society’s expectations. Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London encouraged me in my café job to appreciate what it means to serve others, for he worked as a plongeur in a hotel as a social experiment. His chapter on the ‘tramp monster’ archetype genuinely changed the way I approach and encounter homeless people, and inspired a deeper compassion for the poor than I had before. Crime and Punishment showed me not to be judgmental. Dostoyevsky deftly has the reader sympathising with a murderer and admiring a prostitute’s purity to the point of saintliness.
Yes it is true that any book, classic or modern, has the power to change us a bit, and there is huge subjectivity in reading anyway, but it is also true that when a book is appreciated and enjoyed from generation to generation and is considered a ‘classic’, it is probably because it contains something that touches the part of the human being that is common to us all. And that, I find, is a novel worth giving a go.
Words by Isabel Errington
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