I’ve spent the past month and a bit working away from my native London in Kathmandu, reporting on the aftermath of the earthquake. Parachuting into a little known city, with regular power cuts and irregular internet connectivity, away from my usual evening vices of Netflix and beer and good old pals, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to immerse myself in some of some of the celebrated works of literature I’d never got round to reading.
I decided to do this a few weeks before my travels, after a conversation with a good friend of mine – himself a keen traveller and bibliophile. We were sat having a beer in London’s east end, when we started discussing literature. Had I read Lolita?, he asked. No, I replied. I had a vague idea about it. I think I had seen the apparently forgettable Jeremy Irons film of it a while ago, but could little remember the plot. He described it to me. I felt intrigued and revolted in equal measure—and that, he told me, was sort of the point—the beautiful telling of an obscenely uncomfortable story. The horrific acts performed by a man you are almost drawn to sympathise with. But the fact was, here was a seminal work of 20th Century literature, and I’d never actually bothered to spend a few days reading it.
He reeled off a few other books. No. No. No. Er, I think I did (No). No. No. Oh yes! Frankenstein, what an astounding book that was etc. No. No.
It dawned on me that I was probably a bit of an inverted snob. Sure, I’ve read a fair few classics, but not nearly enough. No Austin, no Brote (either of them), no Hardy, no Joyce. Really. None of them. But sitting here in my candle-lit room during a power cut after a long day, listening to the chirping insects and conversational dogs outside my window, and listening to Bach (that’s another thing I always meant to get into), it seemed like the ideal time. No night time distractions, just me, the book I managed to download to the iPad before the wifi went down, and the slapping sound of palm on ear following that familiar buzz of a mosquito.
I started with Lolita, then Jane Eyre, then Jude the Obscure, and slowly worked my way through the free classics from the Kindle library. I was amazed at what I’d been missing. You might be reading this and snorting in derision at this uncultured oaf in the way that you might a man who had just ecstatically booked a round the world cruise after realising that the earth wasn’t flat after all. But how many people today are in the same boat? Come on, really. Hands up. How many have daft ideas about Wuthering Heights being a book that only exists in English classrooms? Or Dickens just being an early draft of a movie starring Kermit the Frog? I’m joking. But I’m serious. But I’m joking. Or am I?
Maybe it’s about distraction. I can quite easily sit and read an SF novel about talking space cats and teleporters and things that go X times the speed of light and Really Really Big intergalactic artificial habitats (Ringworld, on the plane here). I can also spend my time immersed in journalistic modern histories by the likes of Robert Fisk (The Great War for Civilisation, off and on over the past six months) or, as now, a contemporary history of Nepal by Prashant Jha (the highly recommended Battles of the New Republic, purchased as work-related research, and thoroughly enjoyed). But somehow, reading the classics sometimes just felt a bit—I don’t know—like I was going to do it to learn something, rather than enjoy it. It’s a bit like when you go on holiday and make the point of going to see a historical site because you feel you have to, since you’re there, but when it’s in front of you in all its glory, it stirs you emotionally and suddenly you “get it”.
So, it’s a lesson. Don’t feel intimidated. Don’t think you’re about to read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists or Bleak House or any of those books where they write the names of towns like t----, just do it because you’ll enjoy it. Or maybe you won’t. But chances are you’ll think about the world differently, and at least consider why it might be that it is such an important work of art for so many people, for so many years.