The Classics, Culture, and Cock Waving

Of Mice and Must-Read Books

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”
– Mark Twain

Open_book

A Truth universally acknowledged…

The classics are widely thought of as the books to read. More or less every influential voice on literature has espoused their virtues and you will almost certainly have been beaten over the head with at least one during the course of your education. As you left school and staggered into the rest of your life you may have come to a vague realisation that these books have soaked into the social conscious in a way that few other books can. These are not book that sit forgotten and collecting dust on a shelf. They have achieved a weird cultural permeation: Everybody owns one, would like to have read one, and if they’ve read one they’d like to have read two. The funny thing is that a lot of people never actually do. The classics will occupy shelf space like an insecure man’s trophy wife, projecting their presence into society and valued not for their content but for their capital. Despite an existence semi-shrouded in cultural fog, and regardless of having read them, people will gladly chorus their brilliance.

The problem is not the books. In the same way some men keep badly trained dogs and others buy sports cars, the classics function, for some, as a social cock extension. Their reputation has not inspired curiosity, but expectation. There’s a perceived pressure to have read these books but the reason for that pressure leaves me cynical. You don’t get to opine about the classics, you must merely accept them. Ideally in some sort of religious fervour. It’s the kind of social pressure that might drive the card carrying feminist to bellow the praises of Jane Austen, while behind closed doors using her writing as an alternative to sleeping pills. Perhaps the Etonian predetermined success story ascending social strata on the family escalator, might feel compelled to crocodile empathy for the working class shortly after announcing their recent reading of some Dickens.

Great expectations

A blob fish state of affairs in which the audience don’t feel compelled to read the classics so much as they feel compelled to say they have read them, and where enjoyment is an obligation not an individual expression. For the low-effort ladder climbers it’s at least important to have one or two visible on a shelf, in case someone comes around to ask for your wi-fi password or read the meters. They’re as much owned as a means of cultural virtue signalling as they are the pursuit of a simple desire to read. The thing is that much of what has worked the classics into the literary canon is their context as much as their content. I never made it through Heart of Darkness. It’s not long, it’s just tedious. There are some who suggest that the prose is deliberately dense and obstructive, mirroring the setting but the fact that this dry style occurs repeatedly in prose of that period makes the claim sound like someone’s making excuses. While I can respect the colonial commentary, I’m not going to waste my time reading a book I don’t enjoy purely to tell people I’ve read it. I didn’t start it because I had the misguided assumption that it would make me a more cultured man or shift me up the rope ladder a couple of rungs. I was intrigued by the reputation it had for atmosphere and I wanted to know what had inspired films like Apocalypse Now and games like Spec Ops: The Line.

I’ve often wondered how many people express a desire to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace because of its reputation as an imposing tome of doom, or because it’s part of the established giants of Russian literature that are only mentioned in hushed awe. I wonder if people feel that they aren’t allowed to do otherwise, fearing some kind of reprisal or ostracism if they dared to express the idea that it wasn’t for them. I wonder how many people have gone out and purchased that book for the aforementioned reasons, but never entertained a genuine desire to read it. Personally, I haven’t read any of them. Crime and Punishment is on my to-read list, but I’ll see what I think of it when I get there.

I drowned myself in precisely half of Moby Dick after listening to Mastodon’s Leviathan. The half I didn’t read is a whaling encyclopaedia that just gets in the way of the narrative. I’d like to think that having read that, someone somewhere just choked on their large intestine. You know those chapters in American Psycho where Bateman rambles on about the banal details concerning some bit of pop culture, a clothing brand, or something equivalently throwaway? Every other chapter in Moby Dick is like that, except most of the time the whaling encyclopaedia doesn’t actually seem to be tied into the narrative. It’s like Herman Melville decided he just really wanted to tell us how much research he’d done by drenching us in the mind numbing minutia of harvesting whale blubber. The initial essay on the symbolic significance of the colour white was relevant to the narrative but ultimately felt unnecessary. I can’t remember bothering with the even numbered chapters thereafter. I would, however, wholeheartedly recommend the odd-numbered chapters.

I also wonder how many people picking up any one of the classic books will be aware of the reason behind the prestige of their choice. I don’t mean that with the sneering implication that a person simply shouldn’t bother if they haven’t done several hours of prerequisite research before actually reading the books, just that I can’t help thinking that a significant portion of the population are primarily after a decent yarn.

Arguably, by contemporary standards and tastes, they’re often enough not going to get one. Consider Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Vampires have staked an iconic place in popular culture since the early 1700s. Stoker’s gothic novel set a marker down for those drawn to the idea of the vampire, creating an archetype in whose shadow later vampires would lurk. To be fair, who doesn’t want an attractive person nibbling their neck? That was part of the point after all. Reading it back in university, though, I couldn’t bury a growing sense of dismay as I went through it. I don’t get on all that well with Victorian era writing, as you might have guessed, but I’d have thought that the grandfather of the modern vampire would have a shown more life! It’s a serious slog in places. How many people equate Dracula with tedium?

I’ve little doubt that part of my impatience stems from my own ultra-fast non-stop oversharing fire-and-forget connection-collect-a-thon socio-historical context. Nonetheless, my natural ‘walk fast and hold the small talk’ attitude extends to literature. It’s not a hard and fast rule and I’m patient when I’m interested by something, but just as with the Count of Monte Cristo, there are more than a few times that I’ve looked up from one of those novels and resisted the urge to loudly demand that the author get to the sodding point.

While I’m sure we’re all glad that Bram Stoker’s novel cemented the vampire as a figure in popular culture for generations to come, inspiring all manner of pasty-faced collar-popping parasites, it is very much a product of its day. While it’s important o take context into account, that context doesn’t necessarily change contemporary reception. Nowadays the novel provides less a gripping tale or undead terror and more an intriguing insight into Victorian metaphors for Victorian prejudice. That and yet another bout of chronic insecurity that the literary world likes to dub, “a crisis of masculinity.” On that latter point, I think it’s safe to say that, since our ancient ancestors discovered the banana, there has never been a point in history where men have every felt manly enough. There are many people a thousand times more studied on human psychology than myself, but I would put money on the prediction that if a quick whip through the annals of the written word, with an sufficiently broad reference guide, reveals anything, it is the simpering fragility of the human ego regardless of race, nationality, gender, or era.

A story on the BBC website characterised this perceived correlation between classic literature and social status. A mother lamenting the choice of a group of year five pupils to name themselves the ‘Rowling’ class instead of the ‘Austen’ class, expressed dismay that not many nine or ten year olds are particularly familiar with Jane Austen. That’s fair enough, and perhaps I’m doing the woman a disservice, but I think it’s telling that her follow up comment was, “And she goes to a very high achieving school indeed.”

Are we to infer that it’s expected that lesser achieving primary schools read Harry Potter instead of Pride and Prejudice? What is the objective connection between high achievement in early education and a familiarity with Jane Austen? Or any other author for that matter. We return to the fallacy that an author awarded prestige and recognition, by masturbatory social trends and followings, will automatically convert this nebulous currency into vital resources. They thereby allow their readers to ascend to a superior model of humanity, using “high-brow” literature as a vector for that mysterious process we know of as ‘bio-literary osmosis’. That’s the good thing about kids: They read a book because they want to read the book, unobstructed by the shallow social politics of the would-be-cultured.

A Barnes and Noble article has a similar sentiment, skirting the edge of elitism that, at this point, is almost expected of anybody talking about the classics. To be fair to her, Ginni Chen addresses their cultural significance, justifying the hype as prominent examples of style and genre, or as ‘markers of creative rebellion’ – which seems to be more than most will bother to do. However, while the classics may well represent these milestones in the literary tradition, that in itself does not make a good book.

None of this means that the historical and cultural context don’t qualify these books as meriting their status. Whether they were ripping the blinds off a culture issue or setting the new standard for excellence in their respective genres and styles, they deserve to be remembered and held in high regard. But the cultural vogue for blindly hyping them because there’s an expectation that only a certain class of person reads the classics, indicates a cheapness of character. Here’s the thing: You can have a fantastic subtext, theme, or message, and if you can pull it off well then you should be damned proud, but that doesn’t mean the writing itself takes a back seat. Now I’m arguing against an entire period of literature here and my modern tastes don’t necessarily mesh with their historical styles, but this applies to modern writing too – particularly “literary” fiction. It also doesn’t mean tastes can’t change, and while I’m sure that the same prose I find so muted and stretched was riveting in the period of publication, it’s a waste of time to sit through something you’re not enjoying, regardless of contextual importance. Someone else will enjoy it and you don’t owe the literati your allegiance.

I’d like to return, briefly, to the Mary Sue of Monte Cristo. Criticise the granular pace or the hairball-tangle of subplots in Dumas’ revenge epic, and you will inevitably hear a couple of common responses: It was serialised, he was paid by the word, the subplots all tie together brilliantly at the end. While I am utterly sympathetic to his need to feed, clothe, and home himself, a situation which absolutely accounts for my complaints, it does not stop them from existing.

If a book is to be loved purely on account of the circumstances under which it was written, and for the sake of argument disregarding the quality of the content, then it is not beyond reason to expect that a book about the novel to be more enjoyable than the subject itself! If the argument is that circumstances excuse the writing because of their inherent impact on the content, then can you also conclude that something written without a monetary impact on the content will automatically be better? If we link pay-per-word as a factor of a negative output, then perhaps the removal of that negative factor automatically increases the quality of the output by extension. Or we include that necessitating the artificially inflated word count in the first place I the reason that the writing becomes interesting. Therefore any writing produced without that artificial word cont inflation will be inherently subpar.

Likewise, it’s absolutely admirable that Dumas managed to tie everything together with the famous finesse that he did. Anybody who’s ever encountered the potential disaster that subplot-heavy narratives can become, much less attempted to write one, can appreciate precisely how difficult it is to wrap them all up with anything approaching elegance or consistency. That difficulty grows exponentially the more subplots you have. And there are few things as disappointing as a poorly executed conclusion. With all of that said, if reading the middle third of a narrative is equivalent to wading waist-deep through a bog of iron filings, then you cannot expect anybody to experience your ending, regardless of how fantastic it may be. Nobody has the time.

Jumping back to Ginni Chen, she makes a claim that might be regarded as cliche where literature is concerned, “It’s like developing a sudden appreciation of wine—different notes open up to your palate, you detect hidden floral, fruity, or oaky elements, and you’re better able to articulate your tastes.” I like wine. Red in particular, rarely get on with white. None of my wine drinking has ever crossed into the assertion that due to my open palate I can taste the subtle hints of south-Floridian bitumen lining the yew wood barrel from whence it was siphoned. I admit this is pugilistic, and I doubt poor ‘literary lady’ deserves any of this, but I genuinely resent this kind of response. While I’m on the topic, I’d like to note that I run across at least one news story every single year concerning blind taste tests of wines and spirits. Every time they result in the cheaper brands stealing the limelight from their triple-priced “bespoke” competitors. Because nobody can tell the sodding difference anyway.

On the other hand she writes this: “When you familiarise yourself with the classics, you start to understand where a lot of other books fit in. You’ll begin to identify influences and references in your reading that you weren’t able to before, or didn’t even notice.” I wholeheartedly agree. While I don’t think this is restricted to the classics, their social and historical legacies in literature make them natural keystones from which to branch. That’s the kind of attitude that’s worth a damn. Unfeigned authentic interest, a spark of intrigue when the pieces fit together. Exploring something that is exciting to you is a monumentally more compelling and laudable reason to read one of the classics than anything else. The integrity of exploring literature for the sake of sheer curiosity has value, as opposed to the sweating desperation of simply trying to crowbar your way into some sad insider’s clubhouse.

Paradise regained

It’s worth remembering that the classics isn’t a great way to nail down a specific type of literature. It’s such a gigantic swathe of literary categorisation across genre and period that you may as well stop thinking of it as a block in and of itself. The Odyssey is, in my opinion, worth reading. Someone else will no doubt find reading about “weeping the big tears” and mixing bowls of wine seven thousand times repetitive. Even if they know that it comes from an oral tradition, they’re not obligated to enjoy it. Context helps understand a book, but it cannot force it to be personally enjoyable. All of this is subjective anyway, but my problem arises when that personal measure of enjoyment is replaced by a singular value informed by a mass who do not encourage nor allow deviation or dissent. I’m not sure that there’s a funnier book than Catch 22, but someone else will probably put The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in that spot. Absolutely valid. I’m categorically certain that there is better wank material resting amongst the debris of your nearest landfill than Fifty Shades of Grey, but if that’s what gets you off, then light some candles and go wild.

People should feel compelled to read a classic in the same way they feel compelled to read the latest Harry Potter, Fifty Shades, or fad self-help book: Without regard for how high the arch of the collective brow is. I, personally, may not enjoy an individual book, and I will tear one to shreds when I don’t, but it speaks volumes if a person objects to the choice to read a book. The snobs fog that insists on mandatory classic reading, and moreover adoration, inherently negates the very value that this sort of pseudo-intellectual sycophantism seeks to propagate. The superficial attitude towards this vast swathe of literature devalues these books, reducing them to display pieces – the trophy wives of the uninteresting and insecure. Perhaps the simple act of lumping such a vast swathe of texts stretching back literally thousands of years, is also partly to blame. Browsing the top ten lists will give you a god impression of what people actually mean when they throw out literary allusions – To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, Jane Eyre, etc., but the category contains many more, sometimes surprising, choices. Regardless, the point remains that the classics, much like all symbols of authority, are not beyond reproach. The fact that a piece of literature is recognised as important does not, in turn, create the obligation to appreciate it. The two factors are not linked, nor does the bestowed importance create inherent value outside of itself.

If it wasn’t apparent, I’m far from an authority on the classics. Yet here I am mouthing off about them. In my defence, there are a lot of them. Some I want to read, others that have no allure. Perhaps that will change, perhaps ten years from now I’ll write another excessively long post in response to this one, in which I masterfully pick apart the multitudinous ways in which I am wrong. So be it, hopefully it’ll entertain someone. Regardless, I’d suggest that reading the classics works better if you’re after a specific theme. Returning to the idea of historical keystones: If you’re interested in a part of literature, an idea, or a subject, then you’ll probably get more out of a classic than you otherwise would, given their erratic appeal on a purely entertainment basis from one to the next (all caveats and subjectivity fine print applies).

But for the love of words, read a classic for your own enjoyment. Not because some idiot wearing a sneer and a mortarboard told you it would benefit your social standing.

Yeah, I know, I’m a philistine. And what?

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