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A ‘classic’ case for defence

Many blame this disregard for reading classics on the advent of television and then computers

Gulf News

Last week, a friend’s sister came to visit us. I was excited because this was her first trip to my house since she moved to the country, and also, because the last time that I had seen her, she was barely in her teens. It was 20 years ago.

After my initial surprise at the sight of a confident businesswoman standing at my doorstep, in place of the awkward teenager that I remembered, I invited her in and we sat down for dinner.

She exhibited tremendous confidence in all she talked about, flying from topic to topic. She spoke as knowledgeably about global politics and the reasons for the social disparity in this world, as she did about fashion, shopping and even the spices I had used to make the kababs. Obviously, she was out to impress me, and yes, she certainly had it all well covered.

After dinner, we settled down for coffee in my living room. Here I hoped we could talk about my most favourite thing in the world — books.

However, the moment she saw my racks almost bulging with piles of books, it was as if she was left with nothing to talk about. When she did recover form the initial shock, she asked: “You read all these?” And, if I may add, with extremely, unhidden disdain.

I smiled and nodded, sighing inwardly, before steering the conversation away from books, for I could see that my book collection was just not her cup of tea — sorry, coffee.

But she was apparently quite overwhelmed, and left soon after, promising to come back again — a vow that I doubt will ever see fulfilment.

I am quite used to this display of aversion for my bookshelf, albeit a bit disappointed each time it happens. You see, most of my books are the dreaded classic novels that no one reads anymore.

Many blame this disregard for reading the classics on the advent of television and then computers. The more recent concept of ‘blogging’ is considered the biggest culprit. Using the simplest terminology to express emotions and explain life makes the understanding of classics seem even more daunting an affair, critics say. And this fear looms over readers’ heads, even when the classics are the more familiar and well-recognised ones. After all, who has not heard of Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights or Tess of D’Urbervilles?

However, that’s a harsh judgement passed against technology, for even at school, classmates ridiculed my choice of Jane Eyre, as the heroine to base the final paper of my English coursework on. And this was way before the blogging era.

In fact, if anything, technology has probably helped make a case for the classics, as they have become more accessible to the public — if they want to have a go at reading them, that is.

Writing blogs is a great phenomenon, and one that can assist readers to overcome their fear of the classics. A simplified perspective to some of the great books of yesteryear may make them more pleasurable for readers who are presently put off by them.

Meanwhile, for those who have asked, me time and again, what discoveries I hope to make when I read and re-read my precious novels, the almost sacred reverence for them comes from their ability to describe human emotions with perfection. Classics don’t tire me out because they never run out of new things to say.

Let me borrow a passage from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey that explains perfectly what a delightful experience a good classic novel can be, for it is: “… some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineations of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”

Rabia Alavi is a Dubai-based writer. You can follow her on Twitter at