A Reflection On Classical Literature

September 9, 2013 7:18 pm

How does one define classical literature? In the same way that one defines classical music? Could classical be replaced with “old?” In this sense, is old being used in the pejorative?

An unfortunate consequence of the age in which we live, is that everything is now in easily digestible chunks, and our voracious appetite for consuming more information is outweighing our ability to interpret that information in any meaningful way. The way in which we read has been widely affected by this, with modern authors publishing new books as often as new bus timetables, and about as enthralling.

It is not the desire of this writer to belittle all modern authors in sweeping and scathing attacks on their literary merit, but rather to encourage a whole new generation of readers to look beyond the edge-of-your-seat-thrill-ride that populate most shelves. To enjoy the telling of the story, rather than simply the story itself.

Publishing has become almost like modern farming, in which vast green expanses of inspiration and life have been reduced to conveyor belts with any old slabs of meat splatted on them. Any cut will do! All pieces will be utilised! Nothing goes to waste! And we eat. Mindlessly. We add to our intellect the information we consume from these books, usually through an electronic device whilst watching the latest box set on Netflix at the same time.

Again, this writer must add the caveat that he is not judging this particular style, merely mourning the loss of great (and he means GREAT) literature.

Take an author like Dickens for example. He’s worthy of having his face on a £10 note. Jane Austen also has recently been approved for an appearance also. Why? Look at the influence someone like Shakespeare has had on crafting the landscape in this country. When these authors were writing, no doubt, they were also writing on a conveyor belt, albeit a slower and more laborious one owing to technological advances made since then. Dickens for example would submit writing regularly to journals and magazines, and many of the volumes we read today would have been published in serial form in the same way that Coronation Street excites millions over the course of a week, with people eager to see the next episode.

What people either forget, or possible don’t fully appreciate, is that the world has not changed that much.

A  book absolutely worth reading, if you haven't gauged already.

A book absolutely worth reading, if you haven’t gauged already.

Take for example, this quote from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot;

“…At times I felt better for weeks on end and I could go out on the street; but there became a time when I began to detest the street so much that I would deliberately shut myself up indoors for days. I could not abide these scurrying, shuffling, constantly disgruntled, cheerless, troubled multitudes which hurried past me on the pavements. What was the point of their perpetual misery, their perpetual anxiety and commotion, their perpetual dismal anger (because they were angry, they were, they most certainly were). Whose fault was it they were unhappy and had no idea how to live, though they had up to sixty years of life to look forward to? And each and every one of them pointed to his ragged clothes, his calloused hands, and fumed with anger, crying, “We work like slaves, we toil, we’re hungry like dogs and we’re poor! Others do nothing and they are rich!” (That was their constant refrain all right!)

Anyone who lives in modern day Britain may very well recognise the scene that he is painting here, and this was written in 19th Century Russia.

The characters are speaking to us! The authors are lamenting the world in which they live in a way that nobody in modern literature is doing today, because they are too interested in spinning an exciting yarn. There is nothing wrong with people seeking other forms of entertainment if this kind of literature doesn’t excite, but if the kind of ideas that are discussed through this medium are forgotten about, then our nation will be well entertained, but will have forgotten the importance of human existence. Look at Jonathon Swift’s A Modest Proposal and then try not to compare it with modern day recession hit Britain. Try reading Robinson Crusoe without transporting yourself to this island and asking yourself serious questions about your own humanity.

We seek, as a people, the answers to our existence, and whilst the latest Jack Reacher novel may provide some momentary distraction from this, the power of classical literature to ask probing questions about humanity cannot be understated or forgotten.


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