Why bother reading the classics?
Recently, having binged on Lois McMaster Bujold, I decided I should read some classics to compensate. As I sat down with La Peau de Chagrin by Balzac, I wondered about how well assimilated this notion that there is a ‘canon’, a group of books that it is somewhat shameful not to have read, was in me. Why would Balzac be a more important read than Bujold, if I enjoyed him less? Could I argue that I found the end of La Peau de Chagrin less structured than the conclusion of A Civil Campaign? As a student, I often read books which were recommended by the institution I was a part of – I felt duty-bound to read the ‘canon’ (one notable exception being Lolita, which I decided not to bother with).
The notion of canon has been debated in literary circles, mostly as being a canon of privilege, rather than literary merit. I don’t disagree with this. However, although I don’t believe there is such a thing as one, unique ‘canon’, I’d argue there are a multitude of smaller canons. I was always dimly aware that the notion that ‘canon’ is a fluid definition: the French canon, say, Balzac and Flaubert, is distinct from the English canon, Jane Austin and Charles Dickens, or the Iranian canon, Daneshvar and Hafez. It was never one list of titles I could read in its entirety.
So I was always aware that the canon, or the classics, was a limited notion culturally. And of course, the fact that the canon is something the privileged have control over, while marginalised communities are excluded, is important to keep in mind.
So why bother reading the classics?
Firstly, I strongly believe in reading outside of my own culture, but also outside of my own time. It's as limiting to read only contemporary books, as it is to read only books originally published in English. In both cases, it’s a refusal to acknowledge difference: difference of languages, of ethnicities, and of ages or generations. A book that has marked a generation, that truly spoke to them, is interesting – even if we don’t agree with it, we can agree that it reflects an era, the mood of that time. It gives us an insight in a way of seeing the world that has changed.
(Obviously, it’s possible to read stories from the past which weren’t successful and canonised, but they can be harder to find. The argument that books that were celebrated at the time are the reflection of an era still stands, as some books might have been niche when they were published, while others might have spoken to their current Zeitgeist.)
Secondly, sometimes we’re pleasantly surprised: I loved Don Quixote by Cervantes (if my dog’s name, Sancho Panza, isn’t enough of a giveaway). Its imbricated stories include cross-dressing and love stories and fights and the burlesque situations Quixote gets himself into – in a nutshell, it’s funny. Sometimes the humour is off, and reading it I realise that some stuff made to be funny isn’t quite, not any more – but most of the time it lands. Similarly, most of Alexandre Dumas is pacy, witty, and fun to read. He’s often a recommended read for teenagers or young adults in France. The first few chapters of Le Comte de Monte-Cristo (before it all goes pear-shaped), are bright and sharp, and some of the one-liners are delicious.
I strongly believe writing is a conversation, which authors keep up by answering each other’s novels. That’s another good reason to read the classics: so you’ve got the whole conversation. When I read The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, I’ll admit to not being impressed. I went in there knowing nothing but that it was a classic. It was skilful, the prose was good, but the end felt tagged-on to me, and some of the characters didn’t ring true. They struck me as capricious, lacking real problems, or sometimes just inconsistent. I wasn’t too sure why, exactly, it had become a piece of canon literature – it didn’t speak to me, the way it spoke to its own time.
This being said, I enjoyed reading The Chosen and the Beautiful by Nghi Vo much more because I’d read The Great Gatsby. The opening sequence in Vo’s book, which echoes nearly line for line the description written by Fitzgerald, was deeply satisfying because I could see the beautifully crafted language as it expanded on what had been done before, rephrased it, made it strange. The way Vo challenged the racist assumptions of the text, while staying in its era, felt like re-reading The Great Gatsby with a contemporary, critical companion by my side. This wouldn’t have been possible, this re-examining and reevaluating, queering and fantasying the text, without having read and engaged with the original.
Reading stories that have answered each other is always intriguing. When I watched The Taming of the Shrew on stage (a Shakespeare I can confidently say I hate), I was surprised by a passage where Katherina – the female lead, married to an abusive husband – is forced to deny what she’s seeing. It’s played for laughs, but when she says the sun is shining, he denies it, and orders her to say it’s the moon. She complies. A few times in a row, he forces her to change her tune to agree with him, however absurd he’s being: the sun, the moon, a fair young lady, an old man, it changes at his whim.
What I didn’t expect was how much this echoed 1984 by George Orwell. In the famous torture scene at the core of 1984, the notion of freedom is the freedom of saying the truth, and torture is a way to distort reality. The oppressive government controls whether 2+2=5; freedom is to say that 2+2=4. It’s eerily similar to Katherina’s plight. Freedom is to say that the sun is the sun; oppression is having to state that the sun is the moon. I don’t know if Orwell was aware of the echo he was creating, but as a scholar he would have read Shakespeare extensively. To me, it was enlightening to find this scene – outwardly humour – referenced in an oppressive torture scene. I would have loved to pick Orwell’s brains on The Taming of the Shrew when he first read it. We were having a conversation, discussing these themes of control, truth, and abuse, even without being contemporaries.
How different authors, or different books from the same author, relate to each other through an era we no longer have access to, is another good reason to read the canon. It’s not only interesting to see authors answering each other. Sometimes, it can be interesting to see an author evolving and answering themself. When I read A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, I was blown away. To me, it’s structured like a series of short stories. Each chapter has a beginning/middle/end and a full arc, but all together, these chapters form a novel. (All the chapters with Conrad Hensley as a POV character are especially good.) The text is rich with realistic details that Wolfe researched extensively, probably thanks to his background as a journalist, but with an intimate POV woven into a pacy story.
When I read The Bonfire of the Vanities by Wolfe, a few months later, I was surprised: it read like a less masterful version of A Man in Full. It’s similar, but not quite as powerfully structured. I then realised The Bonfire of the Vanities was published before A Man in Full. It’s interesting that the book Wolfe is remembered for, the first one, isn’t the most accomplished. I’m glad I read both: it means I understand why The Bonfire of the Vanities was successful – it did something that hadn’t been done before, this blending of journalism, research, and fiction – and I’m aware that, as a writer, Wolfe improved through time. I can confidently say his most famous book isn’t, to me, the best one; and recommend A Man in Full wherever I go.
Reading books that have been canonised in another culture is also stimulating, and can give us a set of references which we can then pick up in other contemporary books by that culture.
For example, Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en (probably, although there is some debate on his authorship) has spawned so many copycats that it’s well worth the read just to have the references. But it’s also a funny, pacy read, albeit quite a long one. (I originally read the abridged translation by Arthur Waley, before getting into the unabridged version a couple of years later.)
Reading from the canons of several different countries gives us an interesting contrast, and is another way of broadening our horizons.
To summarise, my argument isn’t so much about what should or shouldn’t be canon, or to ignore questions of privilege in publishing. That privilege still exists now, and was entrenched before. But I’d argue it’s important to read widely, to read outside of one’s era, and to not throw the baby with the bath water. If some books of the literary ‘canon’ you feel strongly against, other books might resonate, still, or resonate in parts, or resonate with each other. It’s always worth exploring further.
25 Jul. 23