It often seems that classic literature hardly feels relevant to the problems facing us anymore. What can the likes of Oscar Wilde, Jane Austen and Charles Dickens possibly have to tell us about national lockdowns, Brexit or the climate crisis? Why would anyone read a 900-page Dostoevsky novel, rather than take an EdX course, or learn to knit?
Through years of austerity, arts and culture have continually suffered. In the decade after 2009 public spending on museums, galleries and libraries was reduced by £400 million, with libraries taking the biggest hit.But not to worry. If Fatima the ballerina can retrain to work in cyber, so can librarians and museum curators, right? If literature is not valued or deemed important now, why should we care about literature from decades, or even centuries ago? It is of no practical use to the majority of the world’s population.
Would we, in fact, be better off reading purely non-fiction? A wealth of information is lying in books waiting to be learned, from agrostology (the study of grass) to zoopharmacognosy (self-medicating animals). Or would we, going even further, be better off reading solely fiction, rather than being subject to the lectures of long-dead white men with a specific, and often outdated, moral, political or religious agenda?
Despite sounding like an ardent opponent to the classics up to this point, I would emphatically say that classics are some of the most valuable and enjoyable books we can read. Many of the classics still loved today have a certain richness and vibrancy that has carried them across centuries and ensures that they continue to resonate with readers today. The tedious hours spent analysing classics in English classes at school can certainly be off-putting for teenagers. I’m sure many can sympathise with my frustrations during countless lessons spent analysing the use of red in Jane Eyre. I would still argue, however, that reading classics, without the pressure of examination, can be immensely valuable and even fun!
Take the works of Huxley, for example, whose work I read for the first time in lockdown. Brave New World is unsettlingly relevant in its discussion of the commodification of leisure, and the drive towards excessive consumption. Huxley’s Island almost acts as a guide to creating a utopia on Earth: this might be just what we need as we persevere through such dystopian times. Crime and Punishment, on the other hand, provides us with questions of conscience, duty and humanity: qualities we should all be reminded of.
In literary classics, we discover the shared stories of human endurance and feel comfort in knowing that we have collectively experienced the same emotions as great authors and iconic characters over centuries. Although they are set against unfamiliar backdrops and time periods, the humanity in these novels stretches across time and encompasses us all. Human emotions never change. We can all relate to something in the friendships in Little Women, the complex relationships in The Brothers Karamazov, and the ever-present temptation of corruption in The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It is a triumph that Penguin Classics had a 65% jump in sales the week before lockdown.The importance of reading classics for fun and personal development should be emphasised to all. They are a constant reminder that we are not alone in our fears, hopes and joys.