What the classics can tell us about life today

Why bother reading classic novels written decades or even centuries ago, when they’re so detatched from modern life? What can you possibly get out of the experience, other than the satisfaction of struggling through archaic language or the escapism of imagining yourself in a nineteenth-century stately home?

According to the editor of a new book – Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen (Classics for Understanding the Present) – there’s a lot we can learn about today’s world from yesterday’s books.

Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen explores the modern relevance of 18 classic novels (all published since 1830). There are plenty of Bucket Listers featured: Herman Melville (The Confidence-Man), Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Notes from Underground), Joseph Conrad (The Secret Agent), Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own), George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London), Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), Kurt Vonnegut (Player Piano) and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid’s Tale).

During the launch event, some of the book’s contributors talked about their chapters – how the books they read and studied shine a light on modern society.

Jan Postma talked about Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own – its role in the evolution of he woman’s position in society and how Woolf approached feminism in a much more relatable way than her predecessors. The key message, he said, is that women need the physical and metaphorical room to write, to create – the space to think. That’s still very true today.

Xandra Schutte compared Dostoyevsky’s characters to today’s Facebook users – the anti-heroes of our time. It was through the protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground that he was able to fulfil his own revenge fantasies, she suggested.

Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent is perhaps one of the most strikingly relevant novels covered in the book. Rutger van der Hoeven talked about Conrad’s “simple tale,” in which Mr Adolf Verloc is not an anarchist, but just pretending to be one. One of the three most-quoted books in the US media after 9/11, The Secret Agent is surprisingly insightful when it comes to some of the faces of today’s terrorism, said Van der Hoeven – the failed footballers and struggling rappers who join extremist organizations.

George Orwell’s picture of the future also turned out to be hauntingly accurate, not just in his most well-known works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but subtly in his explorations of contemporary politics and society. Coen van de Ven recalled a 15-year-old going missing two years ago in the south of England, having left a note urging his family not to look for him, as he wanted to discover what it was like to be really poor. In less dramatic circumstances, that’s what Orwell did in London, giving him plenty of content for Down and Out in Paris and London.

With memorable characters (of whom he said, “It would be fun to write some of their biographies, if one had time”) and first-hand experiences, the book gives a glimpse into the stark reality of poverty. Society may have changed in many ways since the book was published in 1933, but certain aspects of living in poverty are the same – in particular, said Van de Ven, Orwell’s portrayal highlights the way the poor and the rich are almost seen as different races – good rich people and bad poor people. Orwell’s big hits were published later, but all shared the theme we now know as Orwellianism. [Down and Out is also a fantastically entertaining read – ed.]

So some of the classics are more relevant to today’s world than we might have thought, and the 18 novels compiled by Jaap Tielbeke, editor of Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen, are a great starting point.

Which Bucket Listers have written in or about the past in a way that makes the present more understandable to you? Who would you include in this analysis?

Klassiekers om het Heden te Begrijpen is published by Amsterdam University Press and is available in Dutch.