One reason (among many) I enjoy reading classic literature: It’s a finite world.
Having gone on to claim their “celestial rewards,” as Charles Dickens put it so elegantly (Pickwick Papers, I think, or maybe Hard Times?), authors are safely out of the picture. Therefore, they can’t get into Twitter wars with critics over how their work has been interpreted. They can’t reveal appalling personal views after I’ve already fallen in love with their work. They can’t continue releasing more and more information about characters or stories that obliges me endlessly to reframe the original. They can’t write sequels, disappointing or otherwise.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say there’s anything wrong with the above. In fact, I love attending author talks and hearing what inspired a story I enjoyed. I love being able to say to an author, “Thank you for this experience. Thank you!” I love knowing Nick Hornby and Haruki Murakami and Zadie Smith are still alive and well and hopefully, if I’m lucky, writing more books.
It’s just that, sometimes, it can also be nice to have boundaries around a work. It’s nice to close David Copperfield secure in the knowledge that Copperfield and Agnes enjoyed a happy life together with their loved ones. The end. No take-backs.
Sure, even with classic works, it’s not entirely unheard of that new information is unearthed. Sometimes, new details will be revealed about an author’s personal life. Or an unpublished work will surface. Or an unscrupulous publisher will publish a first draft claiming it’s an original work. But can we agree that these instances are relatively rare, especially when we’re dealing with authors who wrote 150 years ago or longer?
Of course, classic authors have been known to get into arguments with critics and/or hold unsavory personal views and/or write disappointing follow-ups or sequels. What I think is, it’s easier to disconnect from all that when it’s so far in the past. It should go without saying that critics of any value will be aware of their personal biases and be capable of assessing literary works fairly regardless of personal views. Most of us can probably think of at least one author whose views we don’t necessarily like or agree with but whose literary work we respect and value. At least, I hope we can.
It’s just … in today’s hyper-connected world, it sometimes feels as if the author is always sitting next to me on the sofa while I’m reading. Oftentimes, I appreciate, even welcome, the company. Every once in a while, though, it’s nice to have a little privacy.
Reading classic literature reminds me not to take things too personally. It allows me to reconnect with the idea of literature beyond the context of my time. It reminds me that, someday, this too will be a memory.
What will remain?