In any ‘100 Books To Read Before You Die’ list, you’re bound to find a couple of Brontës, an Orwell work and probably an Austen thrown in there too. It’s hard to look at these lists and find something new that you haven’t heard about in school before. These kinds of classics represent times in history which shape the way we view literature and the way language and culture has evolved. Fictional though they are, they represent a wider narrative of humanity, but considering how broad and complex humanity is, the novels documenting it seem stuck in an echoing chamber of familiarity. Why are such a small number of books given this pedestal when there are millions of fascinating works written by authors we have never heard of before?
Classics are hard to define even though we are all so familiar with the well-known examples. After time spent googling what made a book a classic, I realised that the vague answers about historical moments, impact and being ‘unforgettable’ were all subjective. A book which can be read and reread without exhaustion to one person will not have the same impact on another. Many novels mean something when they speak to the reader’s own life experiences, when there is familiarity and relatability in the characters and the plot, which surely would mean that everyone has their own personal idea of what a ‘classic’ is.
At some point in history, it has been decided (by literature syllabi, academics, and other influential people) that there are an elite set of books that need to be studied and read by young adults. The idea that these timeless classical works are the peak of literature introduces a hierarchy. For many people, some of the books on these lists will be their favourites and will be read and reread a hundred times over, but for others, they just don’t hit the spot.
There is a pressure to like and love these books that have been forced on us and if these ‘amazing’ works aren’t someone’s cup of tea, they may be put off reading altogether, when really, they have just been reading the wrong kinds of stories. Instead of a focus on reading these supposedly ‘great’ classics, there should be more encouragement on finding stories that speak to different people because of the different lives we all lead.
While a lot of these familiar books are valuable to read and learn from, the issue lies in the amount of importance placed upon them, because it implies that other novels are lesser. There are books out there that can offer the same kind of lessons, if not more valuable ones to many, but because they are not hailed as ‘great literature works’ they are not considered as worthy to spend time reading.
Recent studies have shown that a lot of pupils leave their English GCSE without studying a single book by BAME authors. This lack of diversity and tunnel-vision focus on the classics is damaging to young minds and needs to change. It’s not that rich texts written by Black or ethnic minority authors don’t exist, it’s just that they are waiting to be recognised and studied to the same extent as those by white authors.
We are in charge of what we choose to consume in our free time and instead of reading books by the same authors using the same formula, a conscious effort to diversify our shelves may be the first step away from the elite hierarchy created by the separation of the classics.