Classics can be perceived as elitist, remote; key is to make them more approachable for modern readers

November marks the first-ever Penguin Classics Festival, which is being observed across five Indian cities. Leading bookstores in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata are making available a rare selection of classics, as part of the festival, while workshops and school sessions for readers across different age groups have been conducted with the aim of nurturing a love for these volumes. Henry Eliot, author of The Penguin Classics Book, writes of why the classics deserve our time and attention.

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Soon after the last US presidential election, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four rocketed, as did sales of Brave New World and other works of dystopian fiction. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis became a bestseller for the first time since it was published in 1935. This novel is about a far-right populist who becomes President of the United States: President Windrip wins power by making outrageous promises and then imposes an authoritarian regime that degenerates into bloody civil war. In these uncertain times we go back to the classics, perhaps to reassure ourselves that there’s nothing new in this world, or perhaps to scare ourselves by imagining how bad things might possibly get...

This uncanny prescience is unusual, however. Usually when you read a book that was written years ago, in another country, you notice differences: differences between the world in the book and the world outside your window. If you read Wuthering Heights in Bengaluru, for instance, as I did in 2004, the desolate Yorkshire moors described by Emily Brontë in the 1840s can seem a far cry from the bustle of a thriving, contemporary Indian city.

What distinguishes classics of literature from a historical document?

What distinguishes classics of literature from a historical document?

I personally take pleasure in these differences: I appreciate learning about different times and different cultures, different countries and different centuries. In truth, most of my historical and geographical knowledge comes from reading works of literature! I also enjoy the puzzle of unexpected vocabulary, unfamiliar customs and specific topical references.

But more importantly, these very differences emphasise the overwhelming similarities. There is so much that is universal about the human experience: we were all children once, we have all had 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. Wuthering Heights is a book set in Yorkshire but it is also a book about dark and destructive passions: the fierce attraction between man and woman, the contrast between isolation and company, and those timeless human qualities of jealousy, cowardice, pride, loyalty and love. The setting is the wrapping paper — it’s there because that is when Emily Brontë was writing — but the heart of the book is inside, and it’s not only relevant to the introverted daughter of an English country parson, it speaks directly to you and to me.

That is what ultimately distinguishes a classic work of literature from a historical document. It allows you to enter the mind of another human being and see the world through their eyes: it’s a form of virtual reality, a portal through time and space. This fellow traveller from another age, somewhere else on the planet, has had some insight into the nature of the human condition and they have packaged it up in book form. Now their book has shed its scaffolding and soared into the future, across the years, through different languages even, 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 irrelevance. The reason these books have survived is precisely because they are not dull and old-fashioned: those are the books that have been forgotten. The classics were and are radical, brave, different, exciting. We remember them for precisely that reason: they dared to do something different and to reveal something new about humanity. As the poet WH Auden said, ‘some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.’

The problem is in part the term ‘classic’ itself, which is a helpful piece of marketing for publishers, but which can also be a double-edged sword. As well as connotations of quality and status, it carries heavier associations of struggling through difficult texts at school. The term can feel elitist, remote and easy to ignore. If we could find an alternative, it might reinvigorate these texts and make them appear as the approachable, surprising and mind-expanding books they are. Publishers also promote lists of ‘modern classics’, of course, an equally confusing term. For me, a modern classic is a book that is waiting for classic status: it has great literary quality and it speaks to the current moment, but only time will tell if it is genuinely a timeless work of literature. We don’t know — but our grandchildren will.

Classics expand our daily experience. They allow us to see the world in more colours and live our lives more fully. It’s true there are hurdles to overcome. The language or the context may need elucidation before one can fully appreciate the work, which is why classics editions often have introductions, notes and other apparatus to help readers into a position where they can enjoy the book. I can guarantee you won’t regret the effort: after all, these are the best books ever written.

Henry Eliot is the creative editor of Penguin Classics in the UK. He is the author of The Penguin Classics Book, a reader’s companion to all the Penguin Classics from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the poetry of the First World War.

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Updated Date: Nov 26, 2018 16:28:19 IST

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