Making a case for the Classics: Henry Eliot’s open letter to the millennials
Dear (Fellow) Millennials,
My name is Henry and I’m one of the UK editors of a classics series. I’ve been invited to write an open letter to you in this Netflix age of swiping and liking, when we are all inundated with quick-fire text-bites of 140 characters or less. I’m going to wave a flag for the classics and why you should read them.
But hold on a second – what is this word ‘classic’? It’s such an over-used term it’s easy to lose sight of what it means, or worse, it’s easy to associate it with difficult, dusty, old-fashioned texts that you studied at school and which can’t be relevant in any meaningful way to the world today, can they?
Yes they can! In my eyes a book can only be a classic if it is still vibrantly alive, if you can read it and connect emotionally and intellectually with the text, if it still has a spark that can pass over and light a corresponding spark inside you. A great work of literature allows you to enter the mind of another human being and see the world through their eyes. It’s a form of virtual reality: it enhances your own experience, you see the world in more colours and life appears richer and more sensational. It’s a wonderful feeling!
Of course, when you read a book that has been transmitted across time and space you do notice differences, differences between the world in the book and the world outside your window. If you read Bleak House in Bengaluru, for instance, as I did in 2004, the streets of Victorian London described by Charles Dickens can seem a far cry from the bustle of a thriving, contemporary Indian city.
I personally take a lot of pleasure in these differences: I appreciate learning about different times and different cultures, different countries and different centuries. In fact, most of my historical and geographical knowledge comes from reading works of literature! I also enjoy the puzzles of unexpected vocabulary or unfamiliar customs or specific topical references.
But much more importantly, these very differences emphasise the overwhelming similarities. There is so much that is universal about the human experience: we all have parents, we all face death, we are all capable of love. Patterns repeat across human history: there are cycles of repression and liberation, of optimism and pessimism, of inward-looking and outward-looking. Bleak House is a book about London but it is also a book about any city: the contrasts between rich and poor, the interconnectedness of life, the role of chance, and those timeless human qualities of ambition, cowardice, pride, loyalty and love. The Victorian setting is the wrapping paper – it’s there because that’s when and where Dickens was writing – but the gift is inside and it’s not just for Victorians, it’s for you, it’s for all of us.
That is what ultimately distinguishes a classic work of literature from a historical document. It is not simply a record of the time and place in which it was written: there is a truth wrapped up inside it from which we can all benefit. It has shed its scaffolding and soared into the future, across the years, through different languages, and landed in your hands where you are sitting reading it now. It’s an extraordinary feat of immortality and time travel!
So it frustrates me when people associate the classics with dullness and olden times. The reason these books have survived is precisely because they are not the dull books of olden times: those books have been forgotten. The classics were, and still are, fiercely radical, brave, different, exciting. We remember them for a reason. As the poet W H Auden said, ‘some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.’
So I heartily recommend that we all read the classics. These are the best books ever written. It’s true there are hurdles to overcome: the language or the context may need elucidation before you can fully appreciate the work. But I can guarantee that you won’t regret the effort.
I hope I’ve convinced you. I have recently written a book which covers all the classics from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of the First World War. It has short pieces about each author and each title, with recommendations and links to other books you might enjoy, and it’s designed to help you explore this enticing literary landscape and discover the books that will speak to you.
But to get you started, here are some of my favourite classics – and, for fun, a list of my favourite movie adaptations (see box items). I hope you enjoy these and many happy years of reading!
(Author bio: Editor and writer, Henry Eliot organised various literary tours and has written The Penguin Classics Book, Follow This Thread and Curiocity)
From HT Brunch, April 26, 2020
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