The Oxymoron of Oxford

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As a lover, fan, and devout reader of English Literature, I thought Oxford would be the ideal destination to examine the local attitude towards the literary masterpieces of Britain. With eclectic libraries on every street corner and the title “Oxford Bookshop” drawing my eyes on my 7AM morning runs, my excitement to be in this mecca of literature grew exponentially.

Curious about the Brits’ perspectives on their own English classics, I was excited to ask locals in downtown Oxford for their opinions. I inquired along the lines of which novels in particular had made an impact on their personal lives; soon, I shifted to asking whether or not the norms and values delivered in the texts still play a viable role in their community’s culture. For example; are the rigid social hierarchy and strict marriage laws still prominent in regions of Britain?

I entered the interview process with the mindset that I would receive excess information and prodigious insight. Additionally, through understanding Oxford resident’s views on their native literature, I would be able to gain new perspectives on my favorite works. For one who finds endless beauty in Austen’s elegantly crafted language or in Hardy’s poignant and heartbreaking stories, this seemed perfect.

Surprisingly, I was disappointed with the answers I received.

One local after another, ranging in all ages, pondered endlessly to recall just one English novel. After an awkward minute of silence, waiting for their input, the most common remarks included something like Mrs. Jan Pettin’s response: “Like Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy? I don’t remember, really.” 

A resident and shopper who refused to give his name, claimed as an “Oxford guy” by his girlfriend, mentioned “Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles” yet stated, “I don’t remember a novel having a particular impact on me.”

Shockingly, in Oxford, this presumed oasis of intellect and philosophy, English literary tradition did not seem to make the slightest dent on common residents’ identities. When I think of Britain, personally, the Brontë sisters and Charles Dickens, among other English writers, are the central fountains in the garden of British culture.  

Don’t they teach these novels in schools? I thought. But I was wrong. An employee at the Greek Restaurant at Oxford’s Covered Market informed me “in schools in the UK, they don’t focus on it much. Just at Oxford (as in the university). Amongst the youth there is a lot less reading.” Shopper Mrs. Kimberly Clarke augmented this statement, noting: “Quite honestly, the language is difficult. It is easier to understand on television.”

Perhaps this would be the reason. Obviously, the reading population hasn’t only died down in Oxford. This current of technological change around the world has sent a wave transforming the way in which we learn at school, deliver news, and of course, read. The complex language used in literary work is heavy and at times, it is difficult to understand.

The United States has experienced the same revolutionary effects in respect to technology. However, at school, students are required to take a literature class in which they read American and British Literature among other classics. American Literature and English Literature, especially Shakespeare, are common in United States schools.

I felt a cultural gap between the locals and myself and no deeper connection to my favorite British authors, considering I was in Oxford. Coming from the United States, this lack of awareness is like an American uninformed about Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby or even comparable to a devout Christian who was negligent to the tales inscribed in the Bible.

Are Brits not proud of their native literature? Does the English lifestyle and culture leave the knot of attachment between books and their readers loose? Have these stories been overused to the extent where they are left on the shelf building up dust?

“There’s Oxford and there’s Oxford, right?” said David Leon, professor of creative writing at the University of Oxford. “The division is really massive. Just because there are books in the room next to you, it doesn’t mean you will read them by osmosis.”

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