Anyone can tell you that what is old will eventually be new again. Our culture is constantly recycling itself. I remember one summer I raided my mother's closet for fashion gems from the 70s, which were the height of cool all over again. I find it particularly interesting is when this happens with literary culture. Watching as Hollywood releases yet another remake of Dracula, and then observing the subsequent rush to read the original novel. And how many versions of Hamlet have made it to the silver screen now? I've lost track. Perhaps the most intriguing phenomenon I've been witnessing, however, isn't just a resurgence of classics, but rather a poppy and youthful reinvention of them.
It used to be (at least in my recollection) that books like Jane Eyre were approached with a certain dread by teens. Classic British literature was dusty and dry, something you skimmed because it was assigned or because you wanted to flesh out your reading list. Somewhere along the lines this changed, and suddenly such books are the height of cool.
It’s tricky to pinpoint the exact time that this transition occurred - when classics got that extra bubblegum oomph that launched them from the Ivory Tower and into mainstream pop culture. Was it Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet? Or perhaps a better springboard could be Clueless? Whenever it happened, it is in full swing now. And the mash-ups and cultural spins that have followed are numerous and colorful. When you start running across things like Jane Austin Fight Club and faux Brotë sister action figures on YouTube you know the phenomenon has gone from in-joke to mainstream satire.
The media is saturated with references and spoofs, and our books shelves are no exception. We have mash-ups aplenty: Pride and Predjudice and Zombies. Sense and Sensibility and Seamonsters. Dawn of the Dreadfuls, and let us not forget the newest addition: Android Karenina. And then there are the remakes. Just this week I came across and advanced reading copy of Jane by April Lindner (due out this October), which is described as, “a modern retelling of Jane Eyre with an iconic rock star twist.”
It has taken me a while to settle on my feelings regarding all of this. Part of me finds it delightfully comedic and appealing. Still another part (I suspect the part that got a degree in English) finds it all somewhat disheartening. After all, must we really add zombies to make literature appealing? There is this though: people are reading classics again. Sure, they may be chopped up or retold, but people are reading them. Isn’t that better than them not reading them at all?
What do you think, dear readers? Is this just the next step up on evolutionary ladder for literature, a fine blending of popular culture and literary culture? Could it simply be a trend that will come and go like the bell-bottom jean? Or is it a slip down the rungs, another step deeper into the “dumbing down” of reading that some fear has taken hold?