To Read Or Not To Read: What Do We Do About Classic Books With Racist And Misogynistic Ideas?

Times change, people change, ideas change. Many things happened until we got here. In this 21st century, lots of subjects are in debate. “What to do with classic books that contain racist and misogynistic thoughts?” is one of them. 

We have huge literary wealth. First and foremost, it’s important to have access to it. Access to many and diverse volumes, written in different periods. An ancient piece of work carries cultural, social, and political traits. It contains all these minutiae and details that are connected to the writer’s subjectivity. However, it also transmitted a legacy belonging to the regime of historicity to which the author is inserted: reflections of a moment, a political organization, an economic system, ideas concerning social layers, and coexistent cultures.

To be able to know and study them is already a big deal. These works could not exist anymore. These works could exist but without any possibility of access. The way things are, we can dive into other lifestyles, into distant — and sometimes, closer than they seem — stories. It’s a time machine that frequently helps us to understand our current society.

Of course, some precautions must be taken when it comes to consuming content. According to Portuguese professor Mei Hua Soares, “In the subtleties, we capture some entrenched thoughts that nowadays make us feel uncomfortable”. 

Writing is a risk. Especially the one that remains. When something is perpetuated, it becomes susceptible to review and judgment. Professor Soares points out that the reader’s perspective changes over time. Sometimes, the writer’s view does too. They know certain ideas were accepted when the book was published. But we’re in the 21st century, and many things happened until we got here.

When studying a book in the classroom, I believe we must comment about it, mediate it, because, in this day and age, it can be read in another way. It must be read in another way. Therefore, we should analyze it. It’s not adequate to make a synchronic panorama. One thing is if the author had written something sexist, for instance, today, assuming his discriminatory posture. Another thing is if the book was produced times ago, reflecting a whole structural thought. In this case, the writer’s not alone. They end up registering an epoch deep-seated idea of a determined socioeconomic stratum, which probably is the readership”.

Mei Hua also considered ambiguous pieces of work. She says that, in some cases, what is usually seen as prejudiced, can also show the possibility of detachment from a period of stereotyping. We should question ourselves whether something’s sexist or emancipatory, for example. Surely, many times we’ll get to the first option, but it is paramount to always ponder.

So, what do we do about classic books with racist and misogynistic ideas? We are careful because it can be difficult and even painful to read them, but we analyze them. It’s important to know our past. We’re in the 21st century, and many things happened until we got here. We deserve to know what those things were and, based on them, think of what still awaits us.


The article above was edited by Laura Enchioglo

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