Recently, I’ve become incredibly interested in reading more diverse literature, having just finished reading If I Was Your Girl by Meredith Russo. After all, it’s 2018, people–about time that there’s greater representation in books, whether it’s in Young Adult fiction or in higher literature. For some other great Diverse YA recommendations, check out this post.
I’ve been intentionally branching out in an attempt to discover and read more diverse literature, whether it be regarding topics about feminism, queerness, or cultures other than mine. I feel like literature is the perfect gateway through which we can better understand human experiences apart from our own.
Yet, I still find myself grossly attached to the largely white/white male dominated realm of classical literature. I’m talking like I will fight you if you come after my baby boy Holden Caulfield grossly attached. I’m proud to say one of my favorite books of all-time is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I can also quote all of George Orwell’s 1984 in my sleep. “’If there is hope,’ wrote Winston, ‘it lies in the proles.’”
The definition of classical literature, per Encyclopedia Britannica, is “the literature of any language in a period notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.” Some people might argue that this means that classical literature is only from periods such as the Golden Age or the Renaissance. However, I once had an English teacher who told me that classical literature is a category for any piece of authorial work that’s relevance and excellence has endured far past its publication date. I wholeheartedly subscribe to her definition, hence why I consider works such as The Catcher in the Rye and 1984 as classical literature.
While there’s no angry mob coming after me because I tend to favor classical lit (keep those pitchforks locked up, please), I do still feel people’s scornful eyes on me when I declare my love for the novels of day’s past. How can you possibly revere those stories when they totally lack diversity? people ask me. Trust me, I understand the frustration. I myself wonder if there’s any way that classical literature can still be #relevant when the world is so different than it was back then regarding representation of minorities.
Take the novel To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee as an example. Though originally praised for its diversity in showing the struggle of blacks in the 1960s, a time of severe racial division, many nowadays claim that the novel, in light of today’s world, isn’t so diverse at all. Character Atticus Finch, who is required to defend Tom Robison in court, feels as though the only way he can win the case is if he convinces the jury ofhishonor instead of the innocence of Robinson. We learn nothing of who Robinson is as a character and are instead forced to focus on the trope of the white savior (for more on this, check out this great article by The New Republic).
So why are we still teaching these novels, and countless others like them, to kids in schools? How are they still pertinent to our society? For one thing, the prose is excellent (that’s the writing student coming out in me). But, more importantly, for me, the answer lies in the way that classical literature acts as a time-capsule. Reading stories like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace give us a glimpse into what the world was like twenty, fifty, sometimes even hundreds of years ago. Novels, just like your history class textbooks, capture the lives of the people from our world’s past. While these people may be fictional, the environment they are a product of is very real. Just because the characters didn’t actually live doesn’t mean they can’t tell us something about the world from which they were brought to life in.
From these novels, we can learn not only what our world was like then, but how to better our world today. From these novels, we basically learn what not to do. Reading the actions of characters from classical literature reminds us how we must never be as small-minded as some of them. If we want to change today, maybe we should start by looking back a few chapters to the works of the popular writers of yesterday.
Classical literature is still relevant in the sense that reading it is a learning experience. While we may not support the views and sentiments expressed in the work, we may instead use such views and sentiments as a tool to teach the world how to be more inclusive and accepting.
If you’re looking to get into reading some classical literature for fun, I recommend all of the works mentioned throughout this post, as well as:
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- The Scarlett Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
- David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
- The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte