Have you read the classics? 📖
Maybe it's time we changed the "books you need to read".
For the longest time, I was the most well-read person I knew. I didn't know many others who read as widely or as voraciously as I did in my school. So, if there was one thing in the world I was confident about, it was books.
College was a cruel reality check.
A whole new world
I knew going in that I wouldn't know all the things that my peers did — we'd all come from different education systems, lived in different parts of the city, and grew up with different family dynamics. I was prepared for all these differences.
What I wasn't prepared for was to feel out of place when it came to books and reading.
In retrospect, I should have known. My school had the shittiest library — you couldn't even choose your own book to borrow. The library didn't stock any good books because the children didn't read, and the children didn't read because the library didn't stock any good books. Mainly, the emphasis was on studies — grades were our holy grail, and there was no time for any deviation from the course.
So naturally, when I made it to college, I hadn't even heard of the books my friends loved and grew up with, much less read them. They'd read PG Wodehouse, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and JRR Tolkien. All I'd been reading until then were Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries. The occasional Roald Dahl, if I could borrow it from someone in school. I read the Harry Potter books so late, all seven books were published and like six of them had films too.
All of a sudden, all my bravado disappeared.
I realized how little I'd really read. Immediately, I was worried that I'd be judged. I hadn't read the latest John Green (or any of them), I didn't know what The Hunger Games was, and Twilight1 (the one series I'd read) wasn't giving me any street cred. Possibly the opposite.
I'd built my entire personality around books and reading — I wasn't going to give up and make myself feel bad for things out of my control. I decided to pick up all those books (and then some) from my college libraries2 and borrowed an obscene amount of books from my friends.
Second time's the charm
As I made my way through all these books, I had the opportunity to do something else — figure out what my favourite types of books were.
I devoured The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. John Green? Cassandra Clare? Read every single book by them.
Pride and Prejudice? Jane Eyre? Wuthering Heights? Nope. Not my cup of tea. I quickly realized I preferred books that were published in this century.
When I started my BA in literature two years later, I was still not as well-read as my peers, but it was by choice this time. I had figured out what I liked to read — young adult fiction, children's and middle-grade books, contemporary adult fiction, romance, fanfics, graphic novels, comics. Basically, none of the genres they teach you during a lit degree.
So now, I was a different kind of well-read. But, this time around, I was more than okay with it. I actively chose the books I liked to read and convinced my professors to let me do my papers on books like Ready Player One and Harry Potter. Heck, I even managed to write a paper on Fullmetal Alchemist (the manga series) during my Master's!
Can we please just read what we like?
Here's what I think: there's a lot of unnecessary elitism with the literary community.
This reverence towards classics is all well and good until it becomes suffocating — sometimes we just don't like reading in ye olde English, you know? So many people tend to place old-timey classics on a pedestal, but some phenomenal books are being published now too.
Maybe we don't have to wait for these authors to die to actually give their work a look.
All those "Books to Read Before You're 20/30/50/Dead" lists always have the same old books — maybe those list writers don't care, or perhaps they actually think it's still a great idea to recommend The Catcher In The Rye (it's not), but I'm sick of it.
If someone were to ask me if I've read the classics, I'm gonna say yes. To me, The Hunger Games is a classic — it began a wave of dystopian fiction that we're still reeling from to this day.
Assuming there's just one kind of the classic (the old one) is an outdated idea, and frankly, a highly elitist one. Also, are we ready to talk about the fact that almost all our classics are written by white, cis-het folks? Most of them were written by straight, rich, white men.
Some of these classic writers are highly problematic and only became successful thanks to the labour of their wives or girlfriends (who were obviously given no thanks or acknowledgements). We're not even going to explore the racist or xenophobic views they expressed in their work that is still highly regarded and taught worldwide.
Obviously, there's also a colonial aspect to this. It's fascinating that I did a whole degree in literature in India, but I only studied Indian literature for one semester. We spent way more time exploring western classics and favourites.
All this is not to say that all these classics should be burned or that we should stop reading them. What we need is to simply respect what someone reads and how they choose to read it. Graphic novels, comic books, webtoons, audiobooks, and even fanfics still count as reading.
Here’s hoping that we see more diverse and inclusive book lists that reflect living authors and their work.
This way readers will have more books to choose from and who knows, maybe we can pave the way for a new wave of classics to introduce students to literature and reading around the world.
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Not one, but two, fully stocked, absolutely gorgeous libraries. What a massive upgrade from my school!