This question didn't just pop into my mind in the middle of the night. I have been thinking about it greatly in the last few months. Partially by outside influence and partially by the fact that books are my recreational drugs, I deliberately abandoned the classics of world literature for quite a while and I dived in modernity. I bought contemporary French, American, English, Turkish, Bulgarian, younameit authors, and I was passionately reading and reviewing them.
The benefit of these novels is that they are closer to us. Indeed, they talk about the problems, issues, conflicts, and confrontations of the world now and today, and not in the 19th century. It is far more easier for a reader to identify with Lora, Cassia, Julia, August Brick, Amelie, Hannah, etc. These characters have our problems. They search for love in our way too complicated computerized world, they attempt to balance between jobs and personal life, they fight loneliness and family loss, they struggle with eating disorder, they try to survive the difficult teenage years. It is far more useful to read contemporary specialized non-fiction about your field of studies (economics, finance), which changes daily and thus every book older than a year or two is irrelevant already.
What about classics? How are we supposed to identify with the issues of 19th century women, who have to marry for the man their family chooses, and if they are extremely lucky, they will learn to love him? We cannot imagine separating from someone just because he has less money, social position, power, influence, etc than us. How are we to understand the sufferings of Mme Renald, when she cheats on her husband with the bright, but socially unequal Julien? How are we to really grasp the rebellion of Lady Chatterley and her lover? And what about the struggles and metaphysical questions of the Big Russians - the epic novels of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoi, the little problems of the peasants in Chekhov's world, the unrequited and painful love of Pushkin? Can we really grasp them? And should we read them? And if so, why lately more and more young people turn towards modern books and abandon the classics? Have they read them, have they left them for more mature years, or have they simply ignored them in favor of new and more applicable pieces of literature?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Triple times "Yes" we should read the classics. I wouldn't try to invent hot water in this post, nor criticize other people's personal choices of literature. I would simply point out things we know. The classics are great novels. Not because someone important said so. I wouldn't care even if God himself came down to me to tell me "This book is great. You must read it". I care about time. These novels are great because they have survived the most difficult thing. They have passed the longest distance between two places. They have conquered the one thing we people cannot still even get close to conquering. They have won over time. Years, generations, world wars, disasters, calamities have passed and we still read Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Tolstoi, Chekhov, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Pasternak, The Bronte Sisters, Poe, Lawrence, Marquez, Kerouac, Clavell, Rand, Bradbury, Hugo, Stendhal etc. And safe to say, we will still. There is something to it, isn't there?
I am far from claiming I have read all the classics that I should have. I would go further, I will say I will never read them. I am only 22 and I have read a tiny fraction of what world literature has to offer. And as I love to say "I am afraid this life will not be enough for me to read all that I want to". Yes, it won't be but I will try my best to read as much as I possibly can. And from my modest experience with both classics and contemporary literature I would say it with a plain sentence - Classic literature tells me things I know in a way that makes me stare and admire the talent, the choice of words, the writing style, the intimation, the feeling of greatness you knew existed but you never even imagined it to be so great.
Lastly, where do you think contemporary literature came from? It didn't just magically appear to fill in the bookshelves or to empty our pockets. It was inspired by the classics. And there is NOTHING wrong with it. I hate when people judge an author simply because he took his inspiration from someone great before him. Well, of course he will. Literature is like any other art, and any other profession for that matter. You see something amazing, something revolutionary, something contradictory, something deep and influential. Of course you will use it. You will add something to it from yourself, of course, but you will get the base. That's why we shouldn't be repelled by a novel, which seems to copy an idea already developed by another. We should be actually more impatient to read it. Because we know the author has read the classics, because we realize he is aware of their work, and because we are certain he has filtered the good from the bad and has used the first as the foundation for his work. The result largely now depends on this contemporary author's talent, motivation, and inspiration. But he has used the help given to him in the face of the great ones.
If I have offended someone with this post, I am not sorry. I don't judge contemporary literature; on the contrary, I adore it. Examples such as Zafon, Sagan, Nothomb, Pancol, Gounelle, Larsson, Giordano, etc make me optimistic about the future of great novels in general. But the past of great novels must not be disregarded or ignored. Before you judge contemporary literature, before you impose your opinion on others, before you take the great responsibility of recommending them what to read, be sure you have the basis to do so.