One of the many advantages of having an English major for a mother was the introduction of classic literature at an age when most toddlers confuse their fairytales or stumble on their names. Besides, the Victorian manor I was lucky to grow up in had libraries filled with ancient leather tomes-antiquated books with faded gold lettering along the spines, parchment-like pages detailed with illustrations and calligraphy (all first editions no doubt)-a heady, shimmering flow of word and image, disrupted occasionally by the tragic moth-eaten page.
Then of course, was my mother’s prized revolving book rack-the crème de la crème, sourced from our library’s finest treasures and the compulsory grad-course acquisitions from second-hand bookstores. As a child I couldn’t read them, but my mother reminisced about her college and university years often enough, sometimes swapping Cinderella with a simplified Nicholas Nickerby for the bedtime tale. My dad too, politically-inclined and blessed with a deep voice was well-read and brought alive Shakespeare’s historical dramas with an intensity no production could ever capture. And with his fascination for the morbid, he ingrained in me a life-threatening fear for Poe. Thus, although I didn’t actually read the books until much later, the authors and their characters were as familiar as the imaginary friends I called to tea, recreating(based on my parent’s memoirs) in vivid detail their faces and personalities.
For instance, writing term papers dissecting Victorian decorum hadn’t been pleasant for my mother, especially while wading through Pride and Prejudice, so I naturally reasoned that Jane Austen was one of those fat grumpy old women who live off salacious gossip, needlework and stale tea, someone who if born in this day and age would probably spend her time complaining to her granddaughters or watch reruns of sentimental English soaps. The huge heap of notes for Ulysses and ambiguously titled “stream-of-consciousness”, longer and fatter than the novel itself and my mother’s distaste at the writer’s name being mentioned, convinced me that James Joyce was a mad man and Virginia Woolf his equally-deranged wife. John Keats with his Adonis looks and doomed youth might have been a suitable bridegroom for the Lady OfShalott,a personal favourite. Meanwhile Robert Browning was surely a murderer and it was Oscar Wilde’s infamous life history more than his books that I shamelessly devoured like celebrity gossip.
Much later, when I took to devouring the novels myself that I realized how flawed and inaccurate my conjectures had been. It also occurred to me, like a Frostian epiphany, that classic literature, this mythical wonderland, that I’d regularly revisit during those precarious years of growing-up was this rare magical place, where you enter and leave as different persons. That once you come to the last page of the last chapter and are seconds away from reading the last sentence, knowing it is the end yet not wanting it to end, you realize you are in many ways changed from the person who opened that same book on an idle afternoon, a million years ago.
But the influence of classic literature is more far-reaching. If it hadn’t been for my father’s rendition of Julius Caesar or my mother summarizing The Tale Of Two Cities, I’d never have got through history. Much of Victorian London for me was shaped by Dickensian cityscapes and inhabited by characters from Vanity Fair. Meanwhile my view of the Second World War and the Dresden fire-bombings were never the same after I’d ventured into Kurt Vonnegut territory and neither was the affluence and the decadence of the Jazz Age after I got lost in Fitzgerald’s achingly beautiful language. I realized that classic literature was relevant today not only from a linguistic perspective-but also from a historical perspective by acting as a record of our past, and chronicling the evolution of language and culture, right from Aesop Fables to the Grimm’s and Perrault fairytales to this age of Dr.Seuss and beyond.
Like species subjected to the Darwinian Theory, languages too either evolve or die and tracing their development is always a fascinating process. The tales of Homer and Aeschylus offer a language suffused with myth, magic and bloodshed. Fast forward to the Elizabethan age, whereShakespeare’s and Marlowe’s repeated allusions to the Greek and Roman myths in their storytelling offered a language still rich in metaphor, bawdy undertones and culturally more empathetic. The English of today, stripped of its archaic Latin-ish complexity and refined to over-simplicity is, like the transition of human beings to Homo sapiens-a wondrous and ever-changing process, whose milestones are engraved in the ink of classic literature.
In my high school years, when we first took to seriously analyzing our reading-lists, my teachers introduced me to another vital role of literature-mirroring society, and thereby mirroring human nature and all its frailties. By offering a revealing insight to one’s flaws, Shaw and Hugo and countless others provided a chance for the audience to introspect and rectify their own shortcomings and move a step closer towards building a Utopian society for real.
In another sense, classic literature engages readers at a subconscious,subterranean level in a way Twitter fiction can never compete with. Be it Hemingway’s deft economical strokes or Maugham’s wry sarcasm, great literature fosters a spirit of empathy in its faithful readers. Thus disseminating classics is not only a physical delight, but a life-altering experience pointing towards self-actualization. Someone said “Great poetry makes things happen”. Similarly, classic literature is a human-like force that pleads to the core of our being, imbued with the power to sink us into despair and lead us back into the path of light, like the protagonists of Milton or Dante’s epics.
Thus contemporary literature can never emulate the power wielded by the classics in their pantheon. In fact, contemporary literature can only be critically understood in the context of the classics that preceded it. A close reading of the anti-racist novel, The Help calls forth references from To Kill A Mocking Bird. John Green’s teen angst and alienation begs Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to begin the discussion. While the success of twenty-first century free verse owes its origins to T.S Eliot’s Prufrock poems and Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass ,the contemporary experimental novels are incomplete without the contribution of modernist fiction. The Muse of the contemporary authors who recycle and reinvent the past are in most cases the writers of classics.
Children’s literature too is incomplete without a healthy contribution from Carroll, Lewis and Tolkien. It was the classics that converted me to a full-fledged bookworm. From Wind In The Willows,Heidi and The Wizard Of Oz,the appeal of these books is timeless. My mother read them, and preserved them in a trunk as a child, for her daughter to gasp in at the same dog-eared pages and I know my children will do the same, albeit on an ipad. They took us to worlds that the best CGI-drenched 3D movies can never transport us to, opening doorways in our imagination that we never knew existed.
Maybe it was to this transfixing, alluring power that Ben Jonson referred to when he said of Shakespeare that he was “not of an age but for all time”. All great literature too, is as immortal and cherished.
Previously published in Culture Cult.