The Great Debate: Are the Classics still relevant?

Omar: They say old is gold, but for how long? There are many great works of literature that deserve to be called “classics”. From Shakespeare to Dickens, those authors did write great literature, but is it still relevant? At some point, the gramophone was the peak of the music technology. It was the most advanced and convenient way to listen to music. Whoever invented the gramophone was a genius (it was Emile Berliner, if you are thinking of looking it up!) however, how relevant is the gramophone now? Classics are great; they were the best works of literature produced in their time. However, does this mean innovation stopped there? Are we really unable to find more relevant, contemporary works of literature on the same level?

gramophone-1473389_960_720Riley: Could modern music technology have existed without the gramophone though? Surely the gramophone has helped make modern music what it is now and in that sense, it’s still relevant – and I’m pretty sure there’s some quirky folk out there who still choose to listen to their music old-style! Aside from that though, I’m not sure the two can be compared. The development of technology is just that – development. Literature, though, at its heart, is about the human condition and that is pretty much constant, isn’t it? Although we may spend our days differently now, aren’t we essentially the same beings? We care about the same things – love, hate, children, war, work, money, family…there’s no change in that. Finally, I don’t think that to say the classics are still relevant necessary means that there are no contemporary works of literature that are relevant. Of course there are! There are some amazing pieces of modern literature that deserve pride of place on the world’s stage, but that doesn’t negate the relevance of the classics either.

Weird Details that Ruin Everything

Omar: Aside from the weird, Old English that many people find difficult to understand, the stories are just of full details that can at least be called irrelevant. If a story is taking place in the 1600s, the amount of details that are completely irrelevant to our time is just overwhelming. Instead of focusing on the story, your effort is focused on trying to understand those details in the character’s life that are completely irrelevant to your life. From illness easily treatable today to something as simple as taking a hot shower, you have to keep reminding yourself that this time is different from ours. When the difference is completely obvious like something happening a thousand years ago, you can just get in the mood. However, in the “grey zone” of 1800s for example, some things that you know are there (theoretically!) but function in a completely different way. Using an “automobile” has so many details and limitations that you don’t need to know.  For me, this completely ruins the experience.

800px-L'evoluzione_dell'automobile_Rolls_Royce

Riley: I relish in those details! I’m fascinated in the differences between that early automobile and our new car with all the mod-cons. And yeah, sometimes there’s an illness that is easily treatable now-a-days that might seem odd to us, but we’ve all experienced illness and death caused by illness, even if its cancer rather than consumption or a heart attack instead of tuberculosis. The car may be different, but we experience the excitement of a new car in the same way as they do in the classics. The illness may be different, but we experience the same pain. It all goes back to the human condition – our highs and lows come from different places, but they are essentially the same.

Apart from anything else, these books are educational – they help you learn about that time and place in an engrossing and entertaining way (as opposed to a boring history lesson!). Besides, if a book is well-written, it won’t jar in the way you talk about. You’ll be so engrossed in the story and the narrative that you don’t even notice the differences – it doesn’t seem odd because you are there – or at least, your psyche is there whilst your feet are going dead from being curled under you on the sofa for too long!

Hard To Empathise With

Omar: For me, empathising with the characters is essential for enjoying the story. When everything going on is just completely different (and awkward!) to everything you are used to, the process become extremely different. From trips that take days – or even weeks – instead of hours to communicating via letters that take weeks to be delivered, having to constantly remind yourself of those things simply ruins any empathy I feel for the characters. It becomes increasingly difficult to empathise with what the characters are going through when every detail is just weird and irrelevant.

A_Thousand_Splendid_SunsRiley:  I sort of see your point but as I’ve already mentioned – those things are all relevant if you just look at it a little differently. Besides, is that necessarily a classics vs. modern literature thing? I mean, there’s plenty of modern literature that I find difficult to empathise with – from stories about people in an entirely different world, like Khaled Hosseini‘s books (which I still enjoyed) to more basic differences like tales with a male protagonist or stories about people who like cats over dogs. That works in classics too – I have no way of empathising with Robinson Crusoe‘s plight on the island, necessarily, but I can connect with Winston Smith‘s desire for freedom.

What about Contemporary Literature?

Omar: The big question is not why those classics are not relevant, this is normal considering the fact they were written a very long time ago. The question is why do we insist on bringing them to places such as classrooms in the first place? Will a child for example do better with a story that he finds incredibly different to relate to or with a story that delivers a similar message and is relevant to his daily life? By insisting on using those classics, it is implied that contemporary literature is simply “not good enough”, which just couldn’t be further from the truth. Times change, so should our literature.

 Riley: Why should we teach them about kings and queens of the past then? Or about the World Wars? That’s difficult to understand, and not necessarily relevant to their lives, but they’re still important topics that have influenced us as people today and the world in which we live. The same goes for music of the past, for politics, for social policy and behaviour, for the development of mathematics, philosophy, psychology, science, art… That said, I agree to an extent. I definitely don’t think that schools should stop teaching the classics, but a bit more balance with modern literature would certainly be a good thing.


Originally trained as an architect, Omar found his true passion in writing about art, technology, and everything in between. Join Omar and I next month, when we’ll be debating whether it’s okay to write inside books!

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