Classic literature: ‘Boring’ or relevant?

old-booksI 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.

8 Comments on Classic literature: ‘Boring’ or relevant?

  1. Classics are classics for a reason. When we ignore works by Dumas, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky, we miss the fact that more modern works often plagiarize ideas from the classic authors and that our favorite contemporary authors are not really as new, fresh and unique as we often think. Those who ignore the origins of modern literature are like scientists who use new technology and push buttons but have no basis in how it all works.

  2. Obviously Neace has never read Richardson’s Clarissa or Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlose De Laclos, or anything by the Marquis de Sade if she thinks there is no sex in the classics. And violence of all different forms shows up in classic literature throughout. Sounds like the only classics she ever read were the ones introduced to her in high school.

    How stupid to say that classics are boring because there is no sex, violence or 4-letter words. Even if this were true, does she believe this is what is required to make a book interesting? I don’t shy away from works that make use of these themes or styles, but I certainly don’t require them to be present in order for a work to interest me.

  3. ‘Classics’ are ‘classics’ by the grace of readers. Once they stop being considered so by readers, then they cease to be so.
    That a small group of self appointed custodians of taste follow an pseudo religious agenda whereby they hold a list of ‘classics’ up on high and claim they should be forever venerated, is of no interest, thankfully, to the vast majority of readers.
    That doesn’t mean that the ‘classics’ won’t always be considered good writing in their own way – but time, style, taste, language and culture moves on.

  4. You know what I find boring? The genre “popular” fiction that makes up 90-100% of the NYT bestseller list, the latest cookie-cutter entries in some bestselling author’s series of thrillers or mysteries or paranormal romances. Bleah. I’d sooner have a go at Jane Eyre again, and I HATED Jane Eyre when I was forced to read it in high school.

    Yes, time/style/taste/language/culture move on, but let’s not delude ourselves that movement along each of these axes is uniformly positive.

    Also, people shouldn’t confuse their personal taste, or likes/dislikes, with fact.

  5. This woman teaches college students. (Typical.) I would retitle the article “A case against sending your children to college”! Pathetic.

  6. I think the characterization of her post as being completely anti-classics is not entirely accurate. This was written as a response, it seems, to the absence of classic literature in World Book Night’s list of free books, and more specifically, as discussed in comments, about those who don’t read as voraciously as as you might or who are reluctant to pick anything up. While I think the response to her was fair in the points about relevance, cursing, etc., I think her general idea has at least some merit.

    And I read classics as The Canon, which I’m not sure include a lot of the stuff I find more mindlessly fun and interesting than, say, well…pick something.

    Totally – half the stuff I have is free and on my reader, and it’s been awesome after suffering through some contemporary literature.

  7. Cassandra Neace // January 27, 2012 at 1:27 pm //

    The article was really about how the World Book Night organizers were wise in choosing contemporary titles as part of their efforts to reach non-readers. There was more to it than the title and the bold sections. These are not my opinions – they are the opinions of non-readers. I know this because I teach classes full of them every day.

  8. dramaqueen37022 // January 30, 2012 at 5:56 am //

    Surely reading is down to personal choice? Personally I enjoy some of the classics and I want to read them because they are considered classics. However, not all people do want to read the classics because they prefer other genres. Or let’s face it, they don’t understand the context or subtext of the classics which make them the fantastic works they are. This is not a bad thing, it just means that their educational interests are elsewhere. I would not expect everyone to enjoy the classics because they were chosen decades ago. Should we not be updating the canon as time goes on anyway?

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