The Cult of the Classics

Working men making their own exploration into culture in the 19th century were often stuck in the past as far as their reading material went. They looked to Pope, Milton, Shakespeare, Carlyle etc. All of which I as a teenager, beginning to explore literature for myself, read or attempted to read, or felt guilty for not reading. The kind of books that featured on Sir John Lubbock’s Victorian list of books you ‘should’ have read in order to be considered cultured. Although for working men in the 19th century, reading the whole lot wouldn’t guarantee that. But I digress…

More than 100 years later, for GCSE in the early 1990s, I studied Shakespeare and Wordsworth. We have stagnated, or worse, we are regressing because every year that goes by takes us a year further from the time when any of those works was fresh and new. And as the list is added to (very slowly) the chances of anyone getting through the lot at a reasonably young age grow slimmer.

It is important to know what foundations your culture was built on, but at what cost? If you have to struggle with the language, delve into sideroads of history to understand what was at the time a passing reference to a contemporary person or event, doesn’t that lose some of the pleasure? Which is not to say you shouldn’t do that if you want to – overcoming the challenge may lead to a depth of enjoyment hitherto unknown – but I don’t think it should be expected.

These books or authors were held up at their own times and those just after as the best example of, in Dickens for instance, social conscience in literature. Haven’t we got any other examples yet? If not, we must be doing something wrong.

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6 comments

  1. Interesting Thousand. Like you, I did Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Chaucer, Hardy (I loathe Tess as a result). The most modern play we studied at A level was Pinter. My daughter, currently doing AS English is doing books of a similar ilk, although A Clockwork Orange is now on the syllabus. I try to encourage her to read modern stuff but….
    I’d put Hilary Mantel on the syllabus, not necessarily the Tudor novels; but her use of language is extraordinary. Modern poets? Its given me something to think about.
    Jo

    1. We did Far From the Madding Crowd the year before GCSE. I couldn’t bring myself to read it all the way to the end.

      Interestingly though, I don’t end up reading much modern stuff except the genre novels (crime, sci fi and fantasy). In the last week I’ve been reading F Scott Fitzgerald and PG Wodehouse, and I love Anthony Trollope.

  2. I completely agree with you – but how do you make the Schools have a re-think regarding this – for the students coming thro’ the system.

    Also – how do you achieve the ultimate – i.e. people “just” enjoying books – never mind if they are on the “Best read” books list etc., but people reading books because they really enjoy reading Crime Fiction or Romance Stories etc.,

    Surely the important thing is – having people enjoying reading their books because they love reading books – NOT BECAUSE THEY ARE TOLD THEY SHOULD READ – such and such Books! Reading for pleasure is the ultimate!

    Floyd.

    1. It’s not just schools, it’s society and cultural norms. Reading for pleasure is even better if it makes you think about the world around you as you read. My argument is simply that there are more recent and more relevant books that provide that prism to view the world through (and you’ll probably enjoy them as well, because you don’t have to wade through arcane language). You might enjoy (by which I mean you might find something to fire you up to a raging debate) my post about The Uses of Literacy.

  3. I agree with you here. I finished school in 1979 and in Ireland in those days we got heavy doses of Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson. I think the latest author we read was Austin Clarke (poetry). It is important to give children a love of reading, and while there is nothing wrong in reading, sci fi or romantic novels, it is important that we learn to discern between good writing i.e. the quality of the writing and the snobbery of “good” subject matter. I love Thomas Hardy, PG Wodehouse etc but when I am under the weather or on holidays, I like nothing better than a well written thriller. My problem with many successful writers nowadays, is that they find a formula and stick rigidly to it. Once I have read a couple of their books, I get bored with them.

    1. I read a lot of crime novels but I particularly like someone like Reginald Hill, where the prose is every bit as carefully crafted as a Booker winner, and there are layers to the novel. Crime writers will never win mainstream acclaim though because as you say, there is snobbery over the subject matter.

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