Are Classics Relevant?

thoughts orangutan

Short answer is yes.

But unfortunately, I recently saw yet another video bashing classics as irrelevant- sooo… I guess this is going to be another obligatory post defending classics 😉 In this video, gatsby what gatsbysomeone was saying that Gatsby was “not relevant” today and that it shouldn’t be given to young children, as it will stop them becoming lifelong readers. Now this is daft on a number of levels- not least that no one (and I mean no one) is teaching Fitzgerald to little ones (I can say on good authority that Gatsby is only ever found on A Level syllabuses, ergo for people that have decided they want to study English, making it kind of irrelevant in the “I want to get kids into reading” debate).

TheGreatGatsby_1925jacket.jpegThat aside, as much as I’ve always been fair about how not everyone has to like Gatsby (perhaps I should stop trying to make fetch happen and not mention my theory about the Hemmingway-Fitzgerald divide… but oops did it again 😉), I do think it’s good to see its value regardless. Because, to me, Gatsby is fundamentally relevant. It is a study of human desire and a discussion of the American Dream (or any dream really). It explores the Faustian fall, the tragedy of human endeavour, the knowledge that an aristeia must lead to destruction (or to go super classics geek: hubris => kleos => atē). It is about the struggle of man, through suffering, to find meaning. These are themes as old as time. And the story of Gatsby does them justice, not giving comfortable answers. All of this Fitzgerald achieves with an exquisite command of the English language. Like I said, you don’t have to like it, but to call it irrelevant is to deny the human condition.

Still, let’s say you couldn’t find any relevance to your own life in all that- does that matter? I’m not convinced. Because not everything is supposed to be #relatable. Unrelatable content has a purpose. Art exists to transport us, to make us feel differently, to take us beyond ourselves. Its job isn’t always to make us comfortable in our own skin- sometimes it has to make us feel out of sorts. We often read to experience other people’s experience. That’s how we learn. Not everything should be viewed through the prism of “what can *I* get out of this?” Or, to put it in less fluffy terms, it’s not all about MEMEMEMEME!

Ultimately, even if classics aren’t relevant to you, that doesn’t negate their worth. Classics can open up worlds of understanding; they can be the bridge to some of the greatest human thoughts. And they are #relatable to many people across history. If they’re not for you, that’s okay, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of study.

Also, next time you shit talk Gatsby, you’d better make damn sure you can back it up, or this ape’s coming for you 😉

gatsby

What do you think? Are classics irrelevant? Or are they still worthy of study? Let me know in the comments!

95 thoughts on “Are Classics Relevant?

  1. Bravo! Love love love this post. Read Gatsby years and years ago. Don’t actually remember it very well but it is one I keep meaning to revisit. Course classics are relevant but I do love how you point out that they may not always be relatable! I really don’t ‘get’ some classics but I can appreciate them as a work of art.

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  2. You know you were aching to use that “Gatsy toasting” image — lol. 🙂 I agree with your sentiment. My first encounter with “Gatsby” was my freshman year of high school during an ELA Honors class. It was awesome. 🙂

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  3. Taking just the example of Gatsby I think we could also talk about the clarity and beauty of Fitzgerald’s writing. It’s not just a book that tells a compelling (admittedly that’s subjective, but bear with me please) story that can provide insights into our own lives and the lives of others. It’s a book that tells its story well. As the poet Joseph Brodsky said, the root word of “aesthetics” is “ethics”, which is why a beautifully told tale can actually have the power to make us better people.
    I worry I’m explaining myself very badly here, undermining my own argument, but I hope others will see a gleam in these rough words.

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  4. Classics are indeed relevant. Personally, I don’t like Gatsby, but it’s more for the fact that its intention is to be a downer – that’s just not my jam – but there are still plenty of classics that I would recommend, and completely disagree that they won’t make kids want to read!

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  5. Classics are definitely still relevant. A good teacher should be able to make that clear.

    However, I’d love to see the list of classics expanded as well as some more wiggle room on the required reading lists for students in their teen years. My high school (at least 15 years ago) didn’t teach any books from later than the 1950s and the only “genre” fiction covered were Frankenstein and selected works by Edgar Allan Poe. My classes in high school were full of avid readers of fantasy and sci-fi and I think we would have enjoyed doing an analysis of a “new” book every year just to acknowledge we could learn from something written after our parents were born.

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  6. You do make a good case for Gatsby! I’m probably not the target audience for this post though, since I completely agree with you. Of course, there is the whole discussion of how you define a classic and what are the elements which make a book become a classic. A good story, universal themes, beautiful writing… Perhaps, there are also ‘false’ classics – stories which have a shelf life way longer than most books, but still at some point become irrelevant.

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    1. Thank you! hehehe! Well I’m just glad you agree! 😉 Oh yes that’s a fair point (and a complicated one). And yeah that’s true (there is also the issue of who decides it’s a classic and for what reason… but I’m not sure I have all the answers there!)

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  7. “We often read to experience other people’s experience. That’s how we learn.” Brilliantly put! I think classics are definitely relevant, especially from a historical interest point of view. They (and the reception to them) often tell us a lot about society at that point in time.

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  8. Totally agree that classics are relevant. But Gatsby and I have fought many a miserable battle over the years. Try as I might it defeats me, turns me into a toddler again after a handful of pages; bored, floppy limbed, moody. For me it’s the literary equivalent of ‘eat your greens,’ I know it will be good for me but it just is not to my taste.

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  9. Excellent post! Of course classics matter, even if – and maybe precisely because – one can argue what should be called a “classic”, which is also a completely separate argument. Anyway, it is the point you make about the relatability of books that is important – reading a book is not all about confirming one’s own experience, it’s also about challenging one’s own experiences and learning about the “other”. One might not like the book, story, characters, style, etc. but that is kinda the point about learning about the world outside of one’s own head.

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  10. Classics are definitely relevant! I do think there needs to be more of a blend in literature classes, because there’s a definite imbalance in representation in the literature that a lot of schools teach. But that doesn’t make classics any less important!

    (You can have your Gatsby, though. I’ll take The House of the Seven Gables in its place.) 😉

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  11. What a great post! I definitely think classics are still important. And you make a great point that just because a book is deemed still relevant or even a classic, doesn’t mean you’re required to like it. And just because you don’t like a book doesn’t mean it isn’t still relevant or should still be read at some point in a class.

    But I also think we need to start looking at what newer literature could be added to the classics list/ the required reading lists of school.

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    1. Thank you! I’m really glad you agree!! Absolutely- I think taste is subjective- but I still think it’s possible to see the quality of a book, even if you don’t personally like it (and see why it’s relevant!)

      And that’s a fair point! I do think it’s important to expand reading lists as well- I just don’t think this should mean classics get relegated to the past, because they’re still valuable and important!

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  12. No book is irrelevant. Books represent how the world was at a certain place and time, way more than history books do. When we read fiction we see what the world was really like. We learn human nature. We learn why certain things were done in a certain way. We don’t have to like how the books were written, or what they represent, but we much respect the authors who put pen to paper, explaining the world as they saw it…

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  13. Great post and I completely agree with. I think the idea that something has to be “relevant” is nothing but doublespeak for selfishness, self-centeredness and a desire to cloak a lust for entertainment above something of substance.

    I’ve read enough classics that I hated, and that I wouldn’t read more by that particular author, but even while ranting and raving, I still didn’t feel like any of them were a waste of my time. It takes a maturity to realize something can be good for you even while you hate every fiber of its substance. Gatsby is just such a book for me 😉 I’d gladly kill Fitzgerald for writing such a horrible book. But even that doesn’t make me claim that Gatsby has no value.

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    1. Thank you. Yes I agree with you- I think it shows a certain level of narcissism to demand that every bit of art is “relevant” to each and every individual.

      And yes, I can understand that- I think we’re all in the same boat- cos we all have different classics that we love and loathe- but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to see their merit. Absolutely! haha! Fair enough (well apart from the killing 😉 poor guy was capable of doing that to himself anyway 😉 ) haha well I’m glad to hear it!

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  14. I have found that I enjoy some classics and don’t prefer others (“cough” Catcher in the Rye!), but I think it’s good for people to read something that’s not their favorite and learn from it if they can. I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Great Gatsby, but I can definitely appreciate (at least now I can) the historical, cultural, and literary significance of his work.

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    1. haha! I can completely understand that- we all have our favourites (and the ones we love to hate 😉 ) And that’s completely fair- people definitely don’t have to love it- I just think it’s valuable to understand why it’s important 🙂

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  15. Books usually become classics because they hold universal appeal that is timeless, as well as being beautifully written. They can also teach us a lot about the language and customs of certain eras. I’m a history buff so in that respect classics will always be relevant to me. I think it’s important that classics are still studied in schools. Alongside more modern books, of course.

    I think the people who diss classics do so because they can be quite difficult to read and decipher. But that doesn’t make them unworthy of reading.

    P.S. I haven’t read The Great Gatsby…

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    1. Yes for sure!! Ahh I completely get that too!! And yes- I do think more modern books should be taught as well- that’s a fair argument.

      Yeah I see that a lot and I don’t think it’s a fair argument. There are subsets of literature that I don’t like at all (like stream of consciousness) because for some reason it makes my brain switch off- but that doesn’t mean I denigrate it or tell other people not to read it, just cos it’s not for me.

      hehe no worries! I hope that if you ever do read it, you enjoy it!

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  16. YESS!!!!

    However … as an educator in America, we are probably pushing classics on kids who are too young for them and turning them off of reading forever. When you have freshmen (15 years old) reading six years below grade level, and then expect them to read The Odyssey, YEAH! They get frustrated! In addition to being too hard for them, the language is outdated and therefore unfamiliar, especially if English is not their first language. We give 6th graders (11) reading on a kindergarten or 1st grade level Watership Down and The Hobbit. These books are inaccessible if they can’t read. Period. And since not enough teachers give students time to read what they want, often our students’ only experiences reading are of books they don’t understand or enjoy.

    I will never get behind this dogging on the classics trend, I think it’s so ridiculous. But as an educator in the 21st century I *do* think we need to re-evaluate what is in our reading curriculum here in the states, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.

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    1. Ahh now that is definitely a fair point! Having taught quite a bit over here, I can say the same thing- a lot of the time the classics set aren’t age appropriate (though sometimes I think they can’t get the balance right between too old and too young). So yeah, I definitely hear your point. And I also agree that students definitely don’t get the chance to read books they want and so are often put off by the books they’re forced to read. Though I don’t think that there should be a one-size fits all education system either, because that isn’t working… but perhaps that is a different discussion. Either way, I do agree that a lot of the time curriculums need to be re-evaluated here too- because I personally find it incredibly flawed. But at the same time I don’t think the solution is to abandon classics or critique them unfairly (I will also add that the person that brought up this issue was from this side of the Pond and I can say categorically that they were wrong about the age group that would be taught this- it’s only set for people who are in the last couple of years at school, who’ve chosen to study English, so the point wasn’t really relevant).

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      1. Definitely would not be in favor of abandoning the classics all together! Catcher in the Rye, for example, is a GREAT book for teens to be reading! I think in general book bloggers are overly critical of the classics. *whispers* And a lot of times I think it’s because they don’t understand them, but they’ll never admit that.

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  17. I agree that classics are never to be deemed as irrelevant at any time. Story and settings aside, first, I read your Hemmingway-Fitzgerald divide and wow, I really loved it! I have no preference per say, but to me, a story in a pared down style is too easy to get judged as good or bad. Though like you said, being too on the surface can actually mask some deep inner meaning, it’s hard to say whether that meaning will always be picked up. On the other hand, purple prose always opens up noisy debates as there is always, always, more than one way to interpret it.

    And there is some joy in that – where even for the same reader, it can open new meanings every time they read. And that’s why classics are classics till today and why they are being discussed as rigorously as ever. You never know, when somebody would catch some old phrase and give it a whole new twist and turn all your reading so far upside down.

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    1. I agree! Thanks so much! Really glad you thought that! And yeah that’s fair- I’ve definitely found I’ve had a hard time finding meaning when it’s hidden so far under the surface- but then find others get a lot more out of it! So true!

      And yes for sure! Love that point! I agree!

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  18. Isn’t the point of reading to take you out of your own life and learn what can happen in other people’s?
    One does begin to wonder about the inner workings of people who expend so much effort censuring things and believe we should all read/watch/eat/think as they do.

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  19. It makes me furious even the idea that a book could be irrelevant, regardless of what kind of book it is. ALL BOOKS ARE RELEVANT. That’s literally the purpose of books, to be relevant for even just ONE person in the world.

    Recently, I started working at a new company, and it’s VERY diverse. Out of 11 people, we span cultures from India, Albania, Russia, and America. The very first thing that connected me (American) and one of the only other women (Albanian) was our shared loved of Austen. It almost definitely wouldn’t have happened with a “modern” book, but classics were what drew us together and what sparked a friendship between us, so.

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  20. This is a crazy coincidence… As a teacher, I was just talking about getting burned out on Gatsby and that I needed something more contemporary to read with my classes. Most of the reason is that I’ve taught the class for the past 20 years and read the darn book over 50 times… I wrote a grant and got Dear Martin. We started it yesterday and the kids can’t wait to keep reading. Me included!

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  21. Nice post! Of course classics are relevant! There’s always something new to gain in terms of understanding of struggles, emotions, common human experiences — and also, getting insight into different time periods and the associated societal issues.

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  22. I was going to say… I didn’t read Gatsby until I was in high school (pretty sure I was 16). I read it again in college. Then I read it a third time just to see how I felt about it when I didn’t have to write an essay about it. Liked it all three times. I definitely find it relevant.

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  23. Honestly I mostly hate almost all classics but I can see that they’re relevant and I feel like me and anyone who doesn’t like them have to suck it up and accept them the way people who don’t like math have to suck it up and deal with algebra lmao

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  24. If one is talking about Relatability then why to blame it on classic? Many present and futuristic books should be considered too. I don’t relate to every book I read. Books are mainly about a life situation and exploration of human nature and feeling, how different people react to it differently and what you will take from it. It’s exploring perspective, so relatability is not the main point. And if you want kids get into reading it’s stupid to start with Gatsby. I haven’t read it but I watched movie so I know the story. I agree with you it’s upper level book not a starting level. There are children classics that are really amazing, I haven’t read anything like that in present books. I’m going defend classics because they are real gems.

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  25. Human nature is human nature, and there are themes that are just timeless. So many of the themes Shakespeare wrote about are the same things we grapple with as humans today. Why do you think they keep modernizing his stories? Even biblical stories, which are quite old, illustrate themes, which are common to us today. I also find it educational to look at things through a historical lens. Those bits that do not jibe with our societal norms of today can be used to open a discussion about some very relevant issues. There’s also a beauty in so many people across generations sharing the same stories. I didn’t love every book I was required to read, but I appreciate that many before me had also read that story and we could share that experience.

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  26. Another big hell yeah to this whole post!!! I am in love with the way you broke down the wonder that is The Great Gatsby. “Art exists to transport us, to make us feel differently, to take us beyond ourselves.” Beautifully worded. I feel the same exact way! It’s the classic pieces, and art from the Renaissance, or what came from the Enlightenment and Romantic periods, that does just that. Love, love, love this!!

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  27. I think classics definitely have their value, they’re a reflection of the time in which they were written and that’s worth something if nothing else. Not all classics are going to be something I love or appreciate (for instance, I really hate John Steinbeck) but that doesn’t mean I should write off all classics because of that. That would be silly. And of course they’re relevant, because history is relevant. Great post!

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  28. I am baffled by the new movement that says I can only appreciate or enjoy books about people “just” like me. First of all, I can’t say I have ever read a book about a person just like me. A character might share some attributes with me–their physical looks, their socioeconomic status, their home state, whatever–but those are not necessarily the things that will make me relate to them the most, and I have to say that some things people say are relatable seem superficial to me. So what if we both grew up by a river or something? Is that really what makes a person relatable? I can’t say that’s how I choose friends. Why would it be how I would choose books?

    But I also just don’t understand why I have to find a book relatable to appreciate it when part of the joy of reading is learning about people who are not like you. Learning about a different place or a different time or a different worldview. I don’t want to read and see only myself reflected back.

    I don’t remotely relate to Gatsby or his wealth or his pining after a woman who doesn’t seem all that great. But The Great Gatsby is still an interesting book to me. It’s a window into a certain time and place, and into how one person tried to interpret and make sense of that time and place. That’s what is interesting to me. The trying to make sense of one person’s experience or worldview. The act of interpretation is, I think, always going to be relevant.

    And that people are still trying to figure out if Fitzgerald’s voice is relevant almost ironically makes it so, does it not? People are talking about him and what he said and how he said it and why he said it, and how that compares to what other people are saying now–and that’s literary criticism. That makes him relevant.

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  29. Totally agree!! I hate (yes, I know, so politically incorrect a word but sometimes it’s needed) when people say the classics are irrelevant! That’s just because they’re too dumb to get it (sorry, politically incorrect again but what can I do, I’m German 😉). They’re the same idiots who say Latin and Ancient Greek are irrelevant – which is so not true. And if someone wants to bad talk Gatsby again you can count on me for holding your back. 😉 💕

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  30. Just catching up on all the posts I missed when I was away (neglecting my blog) for about 6 months. Yes! Yes! Gatsby is onenof those hit or miss classics and I’m actually glad that I love it. Fitzgerald’s prose is just very very eloquent and ah! So beautiful!!

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