Why I love reading classic literature

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.

Just David Copperfield and me ... and coffee, and s'mores.
Just David Copperfield and me … and coffee, and s’mores.

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 Or an unpublished work will surface.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?

Classic literature 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. 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?

2 Replies to “Why I love reading classic literature”

  1. I thought this was so well-put. And yet, I feel so torn because as you point out, there are good and bad points to a work being finite.

    Of course, you can sometimes make a work “finite” yourself. For example, the show “Prison Break” only lasted two seasons, in my world.

    That gives me an idea I’d love to get your take on – truly terrible sequels! I just talked about a TV series, of course, but there are some book series where the first one is so good and the follow-up (maybe not even the second one, but a book further along, if it’s a long series) just makes you groan. I feel a bit like the Anne of Green Gables series got that way – the last few books just felt like such downers to me.

    Another thing your post made me think about is how works of fiction – whether classic or contemporary — can also get out of their author’s control. Like how people write fan fiction and come up with some really crazy, sometimes unthinkable stuff (like George and Fred from Harry Potter being involved in “twincest” – wtf, certain “Harry Potter” fanfic writers???). Or how some fans can cause controversy the author never intended, like when some “Hunger Games” readers were angry that Rue was portrayed as black in the movie adaptation, but author Suzanne Collins was totally okay with that — she’d even described Rue as having “dark skin” in the book. (Insert another wtf for racist “Hunger Games” fans here).

    Luckily, I can’t think of many things like this when it comes to Dickens and his work. …Although I’m sure somewhere, in the depths of the internet, someone’s written something about his beloved characters that would make me want to bleach my brain.

    I do like how you pointed out that research can show how a writers’ character and personal opinions may not be that pleasant, even long after they’re gone. I feel like lately I’ve been reading more and more about how Dickens was, well, kind of a dick to his wife. It’s hard to imagine with so much compassion for the human condition being so, but perhaps if nothing else, it goes to show how much a hard childhood can have a lasting and sinister impact on some people – especially back in the day, when therapy and the like didn’t exist.

    I feel like stopping there is sort of bleak, so on a more positive note, isn’t it cool that Dickens liked animals and even had a talking pet raven? If someone (er, besides Dickens and Poe) wrote a book about that – like their imaginary adventures together – I would totally read it, canon be damned! 🙂

    1. I love the idea of making a work finite for myself. Though this would only work for me if I make the decision ahead of time. Once I read a book and that world comes into existence for me, I can’t unsee it. I sometimes wish friends would warn me off terrible sequels so I can stay in the “good” parts. Anne of Green Gables is a perfect example. I loved the first two books so much, but I do think the later books tainted my experience of the first two. So as much as I can remember loving reading the first two books as a kid, they’re not the first books that come to mind when I think of my favorite books.

      I’m not sure what I would do with online fan fiction. I’ve read novels that are essentially fan fiction – Alexander McCall Smith’s “Emma” or P. D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley.” They’re retellings of Austen, so basically, they’re fan fiction. But they’re also books of their own, so I think of them as discrete worlds in themselves. You’re making me want to think more about film adaptations and what makes a good one that doesn’t “ruin” the book.

      I LOVE the expression “bleach my brain” – it’ perfect! I don’t know of Dickens fan fiction. He’s adapted a lot, but mostly by other artists, no? Maybe it’s because he’s kind of heavy and intense. Or maybe he has permeated public consciousness in a different way. I just finished reading Charles Bukawski’s “On Cats” collections, and the whole time I was thinking, “The narrator is Sydney Carton!”

      Incidentally I was thinking of Dickens when I wrote about authors who have unsavory personal qualities. I do think he was a terrifyingly brilliant writer, and I love reading his books. They’re mind blowing. But there are aspects of his work and his character that are disappointing, to say the least. Like you, I’ve wondered how it’s possible when he showed such profound compassion and empathy in his novels. He was clearly capable of seeing people in their depths and complexities. In the end, I don’t know. Maybe it’s just that he was human, really. Maybe it’s easier to forgive that in the past, where it’s safely out of the way, than in the present, where we worry about potential harm it can still inflict?

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