Wednesday, August 02, 2006

"Show me the books he loves and I shall know the man far better than through mortal friends" - Dawn Adams

This week in the Guardian Books supplement, there is an interesting article and discussion on how our reactions to people are influenced by seeing what they are reading. According to a new survey, the genres 'most likely to help you pull' (or simply inspire a positive reaction in those around you) are 1) the classics and 2) modern literary fiction. This makes me very suspicious.

I'm about to be very hypocritical, but here goes: I distrust completely people who judge others on whether or not they read 'the classics' or by how many classics they have read. I admit, when I was 17, I went through a stage of reading nothing but classics for about a year, even going so far as to work my way through the entirety of Paradise Lost (much to the delight of my English tutors). My passion was partly fuelled by the desire to be 'well read' (pretentious in the extreme), partly by the feeling that I should somehow be holding my own in an undefined literary arena, and partly simply because I felt there must be something very worthwhile about reading these books, and that they were classics for a reason. I still read classics now, but with less frequency - there is simply too much else to read, so much so that sometimes I feel unbearably frustrated by the thought of all the books I want to read, and all the time I will waste reading books that for me are second rate, as I hunt for those elusive few that I wish I could continue reading forever. The thing with classics is that an awful lot of people read them or carry them around in their bags in order to prove their intellectual superiority (as evidenced by some of the people who have participated in the discussion on the Guardian site). I am wary of people who publicly proclaim their love for 'the classics', because I am only too familiar with intellectual snobbery and competitiveness, and distrust people who casually throw Tolstoy or Baudelaire into conversation in literary name-dropping games.

On the other hand, I have a lot of time for those who genuinely speak of the classics with real enthusiasm, and can articulate real opinions about what they have read. In my experience however, these readers are relatively rare. As Mark Twain said, "A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." I'm just deeply cynical. But - here comes the hypocrisy - I can't help feeling a little impressed by glimpsing a man reading a classic (or anything I have read and admired). So many people just don't read, and who doesn't want a partner who can hold their own in reading discussions?

So there we have it. I hope I've managed to explain my views clearly enough - nothing against the classics, nothing against those who read them (after all, I'm one of them), but wary of pretentious fakers.

Finally: in answer to the questions posed for discussion on the Guardian's boards, if I saw a man reading any of the James Herriot novels, I would quite possibly fall at his feet. If I saw a man reading and enjoying Houellebecq, I would be more distressed than I can express.


Dorothy W. said...

I understand your conflicted feelings about the classics! I have mixed feelings too -- I want to read the classics, I enjoy some of them, many of them, but I don't want to make judgments about others who do or don't read them, and I want to read other things too, and I don't want others judging me based on what I read. But it's hard for me not to judge, even when I don't want to. One thing that interests me -- what we call classics today weren't necessarily classics in their own day -- the 18C and 19C novel for example wasn't always highly looked upon. So our definitions of "classic" changes.

Danielle said...

This is interesting--I had seen this topic on another British blog,and now I see where the impetus to write on this subject comes from! I missed out on reading a lot of classics when I was younger. After college I worked in a bookstore and read what I thought was fairly literary stuff (modern writers), but that was no doubt peppered with books that were just entertaining (popular, but probably not going to win any prizes). I still read whatever sounds good to me, but I am trying to read more classics. I think I appreciate them much more now than I would have when I was younger!! Sometimes they do have much more substance to them than popular books. For me it depends on my mood and I like to read a variety of books, authors, genres! I also like Dorothy's comment about 18th and 19th C. novels not being highly looked upon in their day, too!

The Traveller said...

Dorothy's point is excellent - D H Lawrence scandalised everybody in his day, after all. And there are some classics I really love - Wuthering Heights is a favourite of mine - and I agree that they often have much more depth than some other popular works. However, I also think that going by whether a book is a classic or not is not necessarily the best way of finding literature that really speaks to you.