Why I Think Society Is Moving Away From Classics And Towards Pulp Literature

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Snapshot
  • It struck me that the child of today is so much preoccupied with learning Shakespeare's passages by heart only for the sake of examinations, that sufficiently early in life, he gets "inoculated" against Shakespeare.

About one year ago (before Covid-19 swept across our country) I had wanted to buy The Oxford book of Quotations--a book I used to enjoy reading in my student days. I browsed through the literature section of all the major bookshops I usually visit, in the twin cities (Hyderabad and Secunderabad).

My search not only proved futile but I was sad, even shocked, to hear some of the replies I got.

In one bookshop the salesgirl told me that they used to carry the book a few years ago but that they had discontinued the sale of that book due to the lack of interest of the general reader in such books. Therefore they had begun to sell books of other categories.

In another shop, the owner himself, trying to be helpful, remarked that he would try to get it from Mumbai or Delhi or even abroad, if I gave him the name of the author, and the publisher.

I decided that there was no point in enlightening him about the fact that the book in question was an anthology and not the work of any single author.

But before I left the shop, he made a profound observation that since a person can find any quote he wants by searching on Google in his laptop or iPad, there is no need for him to buy a book of quotations. I was devastated.

My luck with the Sonnets of Shakespeare was slightly better (not as a part of the ‘complete works’ but as a separate volume). With great difficulty I could manage to get a copy from one shop, where it had been lying unsold, and covered with dust, for ages.

Another category of books lying unsold consisted of the poetical works of various poets, Milton, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson etc. I eagerly grabbed copies of Pope, Coleridge and Dryden which were missing from my library.

However the bookseller gave me to understand that he was not only going to discontinue the sale of those books, but also sell them by weight to vendors who buy papers in bulk.

A third category lying in a corner, and covered with dust, consisted of the stories of Sherlock Holmes, as a single volume containing the long as well as short stories but also as two separate volumes, in addition to detective novels written by various authors.

The owner of the bookstore said that students of today found watching the web series Sherlock more interesting, and nobody was interested in reading the stories of Sherlock Holmes.

However one cannot help noticing how different Holmes in Sherlock is from the character ‘Sherlock Holmes’ created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The only technology of choice that Sherlock Holmes possessed was a well-crafted magnifying glass to assist in his examining a scene of crime. He patiently looked for clues. Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was accustomed to explain his deduction in a very courteous and unhurried pace. But in the TV series Sherlock's deduction is much paced, and jaw-dropping, in tune with this age of technology.

In the television episode ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’,(a crude imitation of ‘A scandal in Bohemia;) the first thing that one notices is a cell phone.

Irene Adler carries on her communication with Sherlock, who has an iPhone, via text messages. Sherlock himself is trying to hack into a cell phone for digitally stored, password protected pictures. He is also on Twitter!

He wears cool clothes. John Watson, who is called John by Sherlock also uses modern technology in this television version: all of his journaling is done on a blog and he is constantly checking his follower count to see how many Internet followers he has. Sherlock has his sister and his mother.

These things alone put me off. Whatever little interest I had in watching Sherlock vanished.

I had grown up in an age when listening to the stories of the greatest detective in fiction, following his methodical deduction (without gadgets) and reading the lyrical prose of Conan Doyle used to delight us.

In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Mortimer, who comes to see Holmes tells him about what he saw near the dead body of Charles Baskerville. According to Mortimer, Barrymore the butler was the first to have seen the dead body of Charles, near the moor gate down the alley. Mortimer told Holmes that Barrymore had made a false statement at the inquest:

The exact words of Mortimer were

"He said that there were no traces upon the ground round the body. He did not observe any. But I did--some little distance off, but fresh and clear.". Holmes asked

"Footprints?"

Mortimer replied "footprints"

Holmes asked "A man's or a woman's?"

Dr. Mortimer looked strangely at, Holmes and Watson, for an instant, and his voice sank almost to a whisper as he answered: "Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound!”.

This is a literary masterpiece. This was the first piece of evidence that presented itself to Sherlock Holmes that he was dealing with the real murderer, a hound. Even after so many years I still get goosebumps whenever I read that paragraph.

Another paragraph in The Hound of the Baskervilles which made a profound impression on me, was Conor Doyle's description of the dead hound.

"In mere size and strength it was a terrible creature which was lyings stretched before us. It was not a pure bloodhound and it was not a pure mastiff; but it appeared to be a combination of the two--gaunt, savage, and as large as a small lioness. Even now in the stillness of death, the huge jaws seemed to be dripping with a bluish flame and the small, deep-set, cruel eyes were ringed with fire".

And finally that fantastic sentence about the murderer Stapleton himself:

"Somewhere in the heart of the great Grimpen Mire, down in the foul slime of the huge morass which had sucked him in, this cold and cruel-hearted man is forever buried".

Having heard about the Sherlock television series ,Conan Doyle must be turning in his grave.

I am afraid children of this generation would not find these paragraphs exciting.

One last observation in respect of Sherlock Holmes of Conan Doyle.

There are hundreds of writers of detective fiction today. I shall take up only the case of Agatha Christie. Her best detective is Hercule Poirot, Now the investigation of a crime in the case of Sherlock Holmes commences with a report given to him by a client who narrates the brief facts of the case. Then Sherlock Holmes proceeds to the scene of crime and commences his investigation. This is normal human behaviour.

In the stories of Hercule Poirot, nobody requests him to take up investigation. It so happens that a murder takes place in a train or any other place where he is present. My son humorously remarked that if a person wishes to have a safe journey he should avoid travelling with Hercule Poirot or places he visits when he is there.

I have digressed. Coming back to the book situation, I happened to visit Chennai and continued to look for a copy of The Oxford book of Quotations in the bookshops in that city. To my dismay I found the same situation prevailing there also.

I said to myself that the only course open for me was to hope for the book to show up in one of the pavement shops or buy it in one of the bookshops in the United States, when I visit that country the next time.

Now of course the situation has changed considerably (thanks to Amazon). Some books are also being bought as kindle editions. However neither manner of buying a book gives me the thrill of perusing books in a bookshop, by manually turning the pages, and picking the book I want.

On the other hand, I found in all the bookstores in both the cities no dearth of novels of Johanna Lindsey, Daniel Steel, Barbara Cartland, Ted Mark, not to mention Frederick Forsyth, Jeffrey Archer (the last two could at least be classified as ‘reasonably good’ in one particular category).

There was also an abundance of books like The Accidental Prime Minister by Sanjaya Baru, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, not to mention books written by Kushwant Singh and Abdul Kalam.

Because it is considered fashionable to possess Being Mortal by Atul Gawande and any book written by Amartya Sen, the pride of place in a prominent corner of the shop is given to their books.

There were any number of books dealing with ‘social activism', 'historical developments', 'Interpretation of ancient History' ' Political commentaries', 'Environmental crisis' 'Energy Economics' and 'challenges faced by bureaucracy'.

A study of the various issues and opinions expressed in these books is considered among journalists, bureaucrats, and intelligentsia as a proof of scholastic enlightenment.

One cannot afford not to mention the books on the two latest fads, 'agrarian crisis', and 'rural poverty’, two factors which in their view, would lead to an agrarian revolution marked by farmers' suicides on an unimaginable scale.

A study of these two latter categories of books, is considered in journalistic and bureaucratic circles as a sign of intellectual manhood.

Books about cricket, especially on Tendulkar, Dhoni and ODI matches adorned the shelves, where perhaps the works of Shakespeare and Milton had once stood.

One would appreciate that nothing is more irritating, or even more painful for a Shakespeare addict like me than to see books on the Bard, missing from a book shop carrying about 15,000 books, on every other topic under the sun.

This automatically made me recall one of the pleasantest experiences during the summer holidays between classes (between 5th Form and the final year in school, or between school and college)-- the visits to many of the bookstores with my “tuition master”, a breed that has disappeared for ever from the educational horizon.

The experience of picking a book that attracted our attention, turning its pages, entering into a discussion with the tuition master about the relative merits of different novels or different editions of the same novel, used to be exhilarating.

The novels were invariably leather-bound and contained beautiful pictures.There were James Fenimore Cooper’s novels, the novels of Nordoff and Hall, Grimm’s fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales, Arabian Nights, The adventures of Sinbad the sailor, Robinson Crusoe and Coral Island, which fired the imagination of children and kindled their interest to read in later years the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens.

Even for a few years after independence some of these novels were available.

Some are available now also, but they are not leather-bound with pleasing pictures and so do not have an aesthetic appearance. In any case no student of today reads such novels. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone, and Enid Blyton’s Five On A Treasure Island, have edged out' classics like Treasure Island of Robert Louis Stevenson and The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas, from shelves in bookstores.

The realisation suddenly dawned on me that ours is not an age of great poetry, and literature, in the sense the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were in England, and the last century in our own country.

This is the age of books of the type mentioned above--pulp-fiction, cheap magazines thrillers, and journals. No one gets inspired by reading reading Mark Antony's funeral oration or John of Gaunt's eloquent description of England.

Students of today are unmoved by To be or not to be" in Hamlet or "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" in Macbeth.

As Bertrand Russel rightly observed in New Hopes For A Changing world:

"Children are made to learn bits of Shakespeare by heart, with the result they associate him with boredom. If they could meet him in the flesh, full of jollity and ale, they would be astonished, and if they have never heard of him, before, they might be led by his jollity to see what he he had written. But if at school they had been inoculated against him, they will never be able to enjoy him. Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school-children; he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences. If he does not give you delight, you had better ignore him"

It struck me that the child of today is so much preoccupied with learning Shakespeare's passages by heart only for the sake of examinations, that sufficiently early in life, he gets "inoculated" against Shakespeare. And if you add to that an interest in cheap fiction and a fascination for violent programmes on Cable TV, you get a hideous concoction, that proves lethal to intellectual faculties, and imagination of a child and robs him of one of the supreme pleasures of life.

Even their elders are in no position to guide them, as they themselves have become addicted to thrillers containing violence and sexual exploits, in abundant measure and so find books that do not contain such material rather boring.

Television, video and cinema have to take a major share of the blame.

If a person can spend three hours in an air-conditioned hall watching exciting scenes of science fiction, battles fought out in space ships with laser guns, or scenes containing steamy sex, how can you expect him or her to have the desire or patience to read Romeo and Juliet in which all the action is confined to Romeo fighting Tybalt with a sword and killing him and all the sex that one can find is confined to a few modest kisses Romeo and Juliet exchange. Naturally Ted Mark and Johanna Lindsay outsell Shakespeare in bookstores.

Unfortunately our schools and colleges do not have enlightened teachers who inculcate in students a love for great literature, particularly Shakespeare. Our educational system also is geared so much towards success in examinations that there is no need or for that matter time to explain the greatness of poets.

What, therefore, is required is the creation of an intellectual environment which promotes a love of ‘learning’ for its own sake and stimulates the interest of students in great passages like"Farewell a long Farewell" in Henry VIII or " Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?" in Macbeth.

If and when this happens there is no need to explain the inherent value of the great plays of Shakespeare, and the poetry of Milton, Keats and Shelley, which have a perennial hold on man when compared with novels and books of ephemeral existence which have ‘tumult’ but no ‘depth’ to borrow an idiom from Wordsworth.

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons.) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.

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