When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with the idea of reading "all the classics". You know the books I'm talking about, the stuffy old ones written by dead white dudes who lived (sometimes literally) about a thousand years ago. The Big Brains, if you will. Part of my quest to read everything deemed a "classic" stemmed from the innate pretentiousness of youth. I was too poor to be an actual Hipster, but whoo boy, did I emulate the attitude. My determination to read everything from Plato to Alexandre Dumas to George Orwell could also be directly related to my other teenaged obsession: Gilmore Girls.
If you are unfamiliar with Gilmore Girls, it was a show that originally aired in 2000, that ran for seven seasons, with a reboot on Netflix that showed what the characters had been up to since the show stopped airing in 2007. The show itself is now a time capsule for the aughts. From the opening scene, where the protagonist Lorelei begs the grumpy diner owner to give her another cup a coffee, to the bonkers clothing style of side character / best character Suki (who is played by the Melissa McCarthy and yes, they made the Melissa McCarthy wear jeans underneath dresses for an entire season!!!), to the idea that ~girl power~ is just repackaged feminism. (It really isn't, but that's not what this blog post is about.) Gilmore Girls had an absolute chokehold on AFABs during this era. Seriously, just mention it to anyone around the age of 27 or older, and I bet they religiously watched this show with their mom. Gilmore Girls was a significant part of my adolescence, and it's a show that still holds a special place in my heart, to this day.
You might be asking why I'm explaining a tv show that's now old enough to legally drink, instead of talking about classic books like the title and introductory paragraph blatantly said I would be discussing, and that would be a valid question with an easy answer: Rory Gilmore. Rory was the other star of the titular Gilmore Girls. At the beginning of the show, she's a precocious teenager with dreams of someday attending Harvard. In the first few seasons, Alexis Bledel is doe-eyed and shy, with very little personality beyond "I'm quirky and sweet" and also "I read a lot of books". The show is just as much about books as it is about niche music as it is about eating junk food as it is about the intense bond of a mother and her daughter. Rory reads a lot on the show, and many of the books that are referenced in dialogue are classic books. (See? I brought it back around in the end.)
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be Rory Gilmore. I related to how she was always the underdog, a relatively poor kid (again, relatively) compared to her classmates who lived in literal mansions. I related to how painfully shy and awkward she was throughout the early seasons, to that pang of discomfort that only introverts can feel when attending parties, like you'd rather be thrown out of a window than force your way through small talk. I emulated her, I still daydream about the sweaters she wore! The interesting thing is, though, when I've revisited the show as an adult, Rory is kind of a Huge Jerk. In the later seasons, she body shames a dancer in order to make good copy for her college newspaper. She is baffled when her rich boyfriend's rich family don't like her, proclaiming, "My ancestors came over on the Mayflower!" Yikes.
So what does it mean that my adulation of classic texts directly coincided with my most pretentious era, and was also partially inspired by a snob main character in a show that, looking back, is pretty tone deaf?? My feelings about reading the classics has definitely changed over the years. Where once I was determined to read them all (if only to showcase my innate superiority to my peers), I started to think they were overrated, and just downright bad. In my twenties, I scoffed at anyone who set out to read "the classics" with an attitude being like, "Why would you read this problematic drivel, when there are so many modern authors you could support instead?" And then, dear reader, I revisited The Great Gatsby.
I'm sorry, I know we were all forced to read that book in high school English classes and F. Scott Fitzgerald was notoriously a Bad Man, so opinions are fairly loaded on this one, but The Great Gatsby whips. Is the author a terrible person? Yes. Are some of the contents of the book blatantly cringe and/or outright problematic? Yes. Does it have some of the cleanest plotting and sharpest character observations I've ever read? Also yes! Say what you want about that man (seriously--say anything, I'm here to drag Scottie from here all the way back to hell), but he could craft a compelling sentence. Pay attention to how he introduces new characters, how in one paragraph, he tells you all you need to know about this person, giving you a perfect mental picture, without even describing too much what they actually look like. I finally understand why this book is taught in school, and it's only taken me three decades of living.
I also recently read Maurice by E.M. Forster for the first time. It's a book that was written in the early 20th century, but wasn't published until the 1970's, after the author died. Why did it take that long to get published? It's because it was explicitly queer, with a happy ending, and was written during a time when it was literally illegal to be gay. The text itself is not unproblematic, but it is still important, if only to see how queer books have evolved over time, to observe the tropes that were first planted in the early 1900s, and to see how modern authors respond to those tropes. The same can be said for Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin. Reading something like Real Life by Brandon Taylor, feels directly informed by James Baldwin. From a literary history perspective, it's fascinating. A lot of the classic texts are! So many "hot girl" books wouldn't exist without Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, which is a book that is so gut-wrenchingly real about mental health, and also, extremely racist. And unfortunately, many popular "hot girl" books are fairly racist, or at least exist in a realm where Black women don't exist, somehow??? With the exception being Luster by Raven Leilani, which is a book you must immediately read if you like sad books about sad women making bad decisions.
All of this being said...am I a snob for liking classic books? Does wanting to read Charles Dickens secretly make me a bad person? (Side note: put The Fraud by Zadie Smith on hold, trust me on this.) What about Aristotle? Hemingway? At what point is it okay to read classics, even if they are problematic? How can I navigate these tricky waters as a trans and queer human being living in the year 2023? This is something I've been struggling with recently, and the conclusion I've reached is that, as long as I openly discuss the problematic aspects of these texts and I (OBVIOUSLY) do not emulate them...I think it's okay? When I was younger, I was interested in reading the classics because it made me feel better than everyone else. As someone in my 30's, I'm more interested in reading the classics to see how books talk to one another through time. To read how many stories are informed by other stories in the past, the ones that have long since been published, but have staying power in modern imaginations. Much like with Gilmore Girls, it's like uncovering a time capsule, a glimpse into a world I can never visit. I'm not always thrilled to see what's inside, but I'm still curious to see what I may find.
-Adam Lopez is a Readers' Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.