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I have recently become aware of a trend of deciding to forgo reading certain novels as, due to modern media and pop culture, people are already aware of the novels plot, themes and characters, before even turning the first page. This gave rise to the question as to whether certain ideas and images are so embedded within our cultural conscience, that the reading of classic books and plays is ruined by our foreknowledge of these literary icons. For example, who doesn’t know the story of Jekyll and Hyde before reading the book, and who isn’t aware of the fundamental conventions of Dracula?
At first I sought to blame cultural heavyweights such as Disney for ruining our collective reading experience. There is no escape from these imitations when companies churn out into our daily lives an un-ignorable myriad of movies which mimic the core themes of quintessential genre definers. A (very brief) survey revealed that more people in our generation were introduced to the stories of Sherlock Holmes, not through Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, but through Basil the Great Mouse Detective.
Do writers then have to go out of their way to ensure that their plot lines aren’t absorbed into popular culture? In Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap the audience are forbidden to reveal the ending of the play. This secrecy could be seen as an example of an author consciously striving to make sure that mainstream success doesn’t lead to a watering down of the play-going experience.
Unfortunately in the long run I couldn’t blame Disney (mostly because Basil is awesome), and had to come to the conclusion that it is a reflection of the brilliance of the original texts which makes the mainstream mimic them so much. Genre Defining novels are called as much because that is what they do, imprint an undeniable set of conventions and codes into their specific genres. The romance genre was defined by writers such as Austen and Bronte, which is why characters such as Heathcliff and Rochester are copied and hence seem so familiar, but this shouldn’t make the original books irrelevant and unreadable.
If our foreknowledge of classic texts is ruining our reading of them and making them irrelevant, then how do we square the results of surveys such as BBC’s ‘The Big Read’? This survey lists a large selection of classics and many of the quintessential genre definers. Is it that the BBC would be unwilling to rate the trashiest of Chic-Flicks and Penny Dreadfuls as the nation’s most popular books, that England is actually a well-read nation, or that the people surveyed didn’t need to read the books to know them well enough to rate them as their favourites?