Reading is still one of those rare activities that retains the power to keep a man in check with reality. I do not recall exactly when I started reading classics, but I do remember how reading the unabridged version of “Little Women” made me feel. It was a domino effect from then on. I would finish reading a 300-page novel within four days and then borrow another classic from the school library so I could read it over the weekend and start a new cycle Monday. Within a very short time, I had read almost all major 19th century literary works, from Daphne Du Maurier to renowned writers like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens– most of them British, with few of them male.
Classics have always succeeded in making the average reader revisit a concept or a personality trait through the characters that they construct. Reading “Pride and Prejudice” when I was 10 years old had a different effect on me than when I reread it at 20. It is hard to understand character choices and dissect personalities or plot defects when you are young and just tasting literature for the first time. The persona behind Elizabeth Bennett is probably one of the most misconstrued characters of literature and wantonly butchered in movie and television adaptations, none of which succeed in representing her femininity and brashness to its full extent. Bennett’s character explores the concept of female individuality and independence, way before its time. The fact that a woman could go on with her life without having to settle for a man of higher status, regardless of their level of compatibility, is a theme that was brought up successfully during an era that cried out for societal conformity. The classic version provokes us to look for hidden meaning behind what she says and begs us to analyze her choices. Each time I read it, she seems like a different person- I understand her better. I might even know who she truly is some day.
Austen could have existed in this era and written the same story about a 20-something woman trying to settle down, find love and make it in the world. It would have turned out to be a lot more different. Somehow Tinder might have been involved. Or text messages at 1:30 a.m. And maybe even a failure to paint the layers of the protagonist due to the lack of a complex language form that induces deep thought and inner reflection into the human soul.
“My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me,” Elizabeth Bennett said and I can still relate to this particular line of thought that has stood the test of misogyny and female psyche through the ages.
Contemporary literature strays away from using complicated Shakespearian or Victorian verse because they do not seem preferable for ingesting the written words in the modern era. The style used is much more conversational, much simpler and aimed to provoke thought in the most unseasoned of readers.
The argument here, therefore, would be how the usage of plainer language has taken away from the beauty of the English verse. Does the lack of a complex linguistic structure deprive us of the joy of rediscovering some of our favorite characters? Does it prohibit them from growing along with us as time moves forwards? Probably so, just because of the fact that people do not discuss modern literature as works of mystery that they cannot comprehend. There aren’t classes that revolve around understanding what they mean and what their purpose for existence is.
I remember the first time I picked up Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” on a recommendation by a cousin. The first chapter lacked the hook I yearned. I barely remember what it was about and so, it was laid to rest. It still lies on my shelf to this day, gathering dust, besides my old, worn out copy of “Wuthering Heights.”
Not all contemporary literature fails to fascinate me. I finished reading Alex Haley’s “Roots” in less than a week. The book glued to my hand, day and night, until I discovered Haley’s genetic connection to the story, which seemed to be a fiction of usually vivid detail. I’m not ashamed to say that the book made me wallow in others’ unfortunate circumstances for a couple of days after.
But so did “A Tale of Two Cities,” “Rebecca” and “Jane Eyre.” No, I didn’t let loose my waterworks with every book I read. It was also happiness, sadness and in some cases, depression. It was the English language in all its unmasked glory, untainted with colloquial contamination and perhaps the most beautiful thing that makes me want to pick up that dusty book from the forgotten shelf.