The book list for World Book Night is noticeably lacking in classic literature. The oldest book on the list is Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There are also a number of young adult titles that will be given out that night, too. There is a reason for this. Modern readers like modern literature. If the goal is to inspire a love of reading in non-readers, it makes sense that we give them books that they see as relevant to their lives today. So give them what they want.
Four-letter words are more entertaining. Classic literature was stifled by the constraints of polite society. Even when they were dealing with serious topics, they had to handle things as delicately as possible. There was the church to worry about. The government could censor objectionable texts. To get around these restrictions, they had to be creative. Much of that creativity escapes the modern reader, and there are few who would take the time to do the research necessary to appreciate them. Modern writers are more direct, and readers do not have to work as hard to find the answers for a unfamiliar reference, should one pop up.
Sex and violence keep the 7 plots from becoming stale. It has long been accepted that there are only seven basic plots that are used over and over again throughout literature. They all center on man’s struggle against the universe. Those seven plots are still in use today, but they are infinitely more exciting. Writers dress them up with technology, violence, and sex. They are open about things in a way that would have been scandalous hundreds of years ago. They confront their demons, and, in doing so, make readers feel as though they can do the same. It is easier to be inspired by a familiar situation.
Women’s lib and civil rights made the literary landscape more interesting. The vast majority of classic literature was written by and about white men, and, more often than not, they came from a “respectable” background. They may not have been born with money in their pockets, but their families did well enough to ensure that they got a decent education. The poor rarely got that privilege. For a long time, women did not get it either. Anyone who was not white was most certainly left out. That meant that these groups rarely got a voice in the the literature of the time. Readers today, particularly young readers, want to identify with the characters they are reading about. They want to know that they have a voice, too.
This does not mean that the classics do not have a place on the shelves. It does mean, however, that we should not be trying to force the classics upon an unreceptive audience. Let them discover the classics on their own. Just because they were written first does not mean that they need to be read that way.