A short plea for reading classics

A short plea for reading classics Robinson Crusoe, as imagined by N.C. Wyeth.

At this time of the year publishers are particularly anxious to push their new wares. That is all very well for them, but many readers might also like to read something older, to return to the classics of all kinds that were the common rereading of yesteryear.

Oddly enough as a result I suppose of the austerities and the war years, at Christmas I often got a book which had been so to speak “pre-loved” as the phrase is these days. I did not mind this. Another’s name on the fly leaf was often a signal that this might be a book well work reading.

It was in this way that I got the William books I loved and a little later the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome. Even my copies of Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson (though every child feels they could do without that preachy know-it-all father), and The Children of the New Forest. The books of Patricia Lynch, with her hardy children and heroic tinkers, came down from my older brothers. And of course I had the run of my parents shelves which contained many books certainly intended for much older readers!

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Even today, when everyone one seems to be reading the very latest thing, I prefer to go back to those older titles. What an experience, for example, Robinson Crusoe is for a returning adult readers. The island which dominated our imaginations in the earlier years is only part of the narrative. Those earlier adventures, capture by the Moorish pirates (the Islamic terrorist of the 18th Century) and his experience as a white slave in the plantations of what Defoe refers to as ‘the Brazils’, seem forgotten today.

Moreover, the edition I had and have contained the continuation of the story, with all those adventures through the wilds of Siberia – no edition now carries that part. Nor the strange third part, which inspired Camus in The Plague, a mystical meditation which certainly changes what one might have thought about the earlier parts. Indeed Crusoe in isolation is much given to reflecting on the relations of God and man in a way which no modern retelling bothers with.

Whatever about one’s own individual reading in earlier years, I would like to make a please for a return to the classics of the past. In them is truly to be found, not reflections of today’s middle class or working class experience, but the experience of other cultures, especially others cultures that once occupied these islands. It does no good to either children or adults to be always reading about their own kinds of life (as in those innumerable novels that clutter the shops). Real experience of the past and of other people is only to be found in reading the writers of the past. Skip Wolf Hall, read Shakespeare!

Only by reading about other people experiences of life and religion can we truly know what they might be by the knowledge of what they have been for others.

 

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