Before I begin exploring the reasons we should read classic novels, let’s try to reach a workable definition of a classic itself. What is a classic novel? Classical is near to the implication of something that is traditional, widely followed and also, old and ‘almost out of the popular culture’, and we can also add to it – a standard of excellence worthy of emulation. It follows a certain set of basic rules and regulations of literary writings that may be in the form of irony, metaphor, sarcasm, effective plot creation and vividity in theme decorated with a humane touch and also loaded with a message that goes beyond the pages. It has the credentials to create a serious atmosphere of literary feeling among the readers. Classical novels are based on widely-accepted themes. Their themes cannot remain within the ambit of a certain idea or a limited connotation. All the novels that are famous worldwide hold the same presence. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is worldwide popular and counted as a classic literary fiction one due to universality in the theme. To understand the opposite, we can take another example of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. Though this is a great novel by Indian standards, it will not be accepted as a worldwide classic in literary fiction for so many reasons. And the most prominent among those reasons will be the lack of a universal theme. So, the important thing to be a classic is the universality in the theme that can be fitted across the globe.
Now, the fulcrum point of discussion is how useful is reading a classic novel. Though I would have prefered the non-technical way of getting my thoughts expressed in a somewhat abstract manner, I am compelled to write in a pointed format so that the readers of The Last Critic can take advantage of this article and my article does not lose the universal appeal. So, let’s begin with the list with highlighted points:
1. Language Aspects: The most important thing in the classical novel is the language used by the novelist. The language used in classical novels is exalted and maintains a decorum. You can open a random page in any novel by Thomas Hardy, for example, and see for yourself what do I mean. There will be an apparent difference between the language used by contemporary commercial novelists and those traditional novelists who wrote to quench their literary urge rather than making money. Regular reading of classic novels can build a strong literary vocabulary among readers. Sometimes, sentences are in the form of a period and the readers will know about these things which are invisible in contemporary novels.
The level of language in modern fiction has reached to bottom where you can find nothing expect slangs, colloquial words (utterly limited to a region) and abuses. Though it’s a crime to compare the novels of Hardy and Chetan Bhagat, there is a vast difference between their ways of describing romance. In the process of simplifying the language that every reader can understand, they have completely turned it upside down where the readers fail to learn anything new. You don’t need to be daunting in your words but it should follow a certain degree of decorum, at the same time. I have nothing against the contemporary novelists and their approach to maximise their reach to many new readers. However, if the language will not be standard, they will not only lose the critical readers, they will also lose the respect of the global literary community and it will be a big shame for India!
2. Theme Aspect: The themes of classical novels always deal with wider aspects. Their themes are not based on normal issues only. Most of the classic novels we read today have one thing in common – their timelessness. Serious concerns find their space in the themes and that’s why those ideas and connotations are forever serious, grave and almost eternal. The conundrum of Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice is still the same. The size of the dick of Debu has been forgotten by most of the readers who are die-hard fans of Chetan Bhagat. The equation is fair and simple to understand. The dick size of Debu was momentary for the readers but the Darcy-appeal is still classy and fashionable. So, you, as a reader, will always find something unique and yet universal every time you read a classic. While in the temporary works of fiction, the contemporary ones, ideas and story are limited to a certain geographical or cultural location.
Do you remember what happened in Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto? You may or you may not. However, most of us remember what was the theme of Jude the Obscure. Jude the Obscure was, is and will be timeless. Walpole’s Otranto was limited as it was a reaction to the contemporary famous genre of gothic novels. Hardy is a genre in himself. So, by reading classic novels, your power to discern the temporal and the timeless will certainly increase gradually.
3. The Understanding of Human Psyche: Reading classics not only increases the interest in meaningful literature, but it also works upon readers’ psychology and strengthens their understanding of human behaviour and the human psyche. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce penetrates deep into the psyche of an artist, his growth as a man and his explorations in the field of art, which is vast no doubt. I will once again take the name of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This novel enters into the unexplored domains of a criminal’s mental states and offers the readers something that even a criminal psychologist cannot offer without being too technical. While in modern novels, you can only understand the ways to enjoy BDSM sex or learning to trick the magic wand which does not have to do anything with the way you live in society.
4. A Tour into the Past: Do you remember the early 20th-century? Of course you won’t, because you were not there. However, reading the novels of Fitzgerald, especially The Great Gatsby, will let you feel yourself in those moments of ephemeral ecstasy. The whole concept of the Jazz Age comes alive in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald and it saves you the efforts in building an impossible time machine! Classic novels written with a passionate account of time are nothing lesser than historical documents the world will read when the time comes to know about a particular distance on the timeline of our progress.
5. Inspiration to Write Your Own Piece: And believe me, this cannot occur after you read some of Durjoy Datta or Savi Sharma books. The modern Indian participation in the global literature is almost negligible save a few authors who are doing their best in terms of language and universality in their themes. If you read too much of the candid romance which becomes sleazy at times, your own urge of writing something meaningful will undoubtedly take the backseat. To avoid that and to avoid seeing yourself self-publishing a book in India, which may be not worth publishing, you should put on a habit of reading classical literature. You can also read Indian classical literature to get inspiration. In English, Raja Rao and R K Narayan are there. In Hindi, Premchand and Hazari Prasad Dwivedi are there. In Sanskrit, there are many that you can follow. For pleasure, you can always read the authors of the day. For inspiration, pick your bets wisely.
So, friends and readers, these were the reasons you should read classic novels. I am sure you must have liked the article. You will certainly be inspired to read more and more good books and that will be always an advantage on your side. All the best and happy reading!
An article by Amit for The Last Critic
- 1.5 Reasons you should read classic novels – opinion