Are Classics Really Must Reads? // What’s a Classic Anyway? // Discussion Post

Do you have to read classics? Other than required high school reading? Or if you’re like me, just read the cliff notes. It works. (Don’t tell anyone)

I see lots of talk about classics. Either they’re awful, or amazing, or just confusing. Also, the name is super confusing? What even is a classic?
Well, before we really start talking, let’s define classics. I’m not talking Medieval and Ancient, so throw out Homer and Shakespeare.

I’m also not chatting about popular books. So do throw out JK Rowling, The Giver and anything written after 1950.

Now, we’ve narrowed the list down. At least, somewhat. When I talk about classics, I’m talking about literature written in-between 1750 and 1950. That’s 200 years of books, A LOT of books were written during this time.

I’m calling them classics because when these books were published they were widely available, popular, and were often social critiques.

They are still read today and offer universal, timeless messages.

The biggest difference in my mind between medieval, ancient classics and these other classics are who actually read them.

Rich people read Homer. Poor people watched Shakespeare’s plays. But their works weren’t widely produced and reread by everyone.

All the people read Dickens. Jane Austen was super popular with everyone. And every little girl read Little Woman. 

Not that we’ve defined terms, let’s talk about our questions.
Should we read classics today? Are they too out of date or boring? And what’s with making Dickens required reading? 

Should we read classics today?

First, this question is wrong. And, yes, I know I wrote this question.

Read whatever you want to read!

Personally I think it’s crazy to stick to one type of book. If you want to be a great writer, you need to read lots of books. Different books, different styles, different genres.
And I’m not the one who first said that. Every famous author ever says to read lots of books. So talk to them if you want to argue.

But you don’t HAVE to read anything. If you want to read classics, read them. If you don’t want to read classics, that’s ok.
We won’t shame you. The classics don’t care if you read them. No ones going to really know.

Now, should schools require classics? 

I’m not an educator. I spent one semester as an education major.
But I think requiring heavy, dense classics may ruin great stories. So I’d be careful about telling students they have to read something.

Also, disclaimer. I didn’t have to read anything in high school. I was a mix of self and homeschooled. And I didn’t read ANY classic literature. Except books I wanted to read. So, Anne of Green Gables.

Now, I did read about classic books. I knew how they influenced society.

I knew about how Uncle Tom’s Cabin made everyone mad, how Common Sense motivated the American Revolutionaries, how Jane Austen reworked the way people thought about every day life.

Maybe we should teach classics along side culture and history?

Are classics boring? 

Style isn’t what decides if something is boring. That’s a pet peeve of mine.

People care about different things. Writing styles are different throughout history. What’s popular today, won’t be popular 100 years from now.

Today, we don’t spend a great deal of time on texturing our stories. But people 140 years ago, really, really cared about the story settings.

It made a big difference to readers. So authors included that. Pages and pages of style descriptions.
Does that make the story boring?

No, because that’s not the actual story.

Pride and Prejudice isn’t about who wore what and the handsome guys and gals. It’s about Darcy and Lizzy and that epic witty banter.

A Tale of Two Cities isn’t about the weather in Paris and London. It’s about class struggles, and Sydney Carton and the French Revolution. (Ok, let’s just say it’s all about Sydney Carton)

Anne of Green Gables isn’t really about Anne’s long rambling descriptions from her imagination. It’s about a lost little girl finding herself and home.

Don’t get weighed down by a book’s descriptive chatter. It’s not a crime to skim through those details.

Stories aren’t just boring, really, they aren’t.

Now, there are boring stories. Did I just contradict myself? (Yes, because I am a complicated person) 

But that’s personal taste. The boring is tied to a particular part of the story. A character. A setting. The style.

You can’t just label all classics as boring. And you can’t label a book boring until you’ve read it. That’s my rule.

I think Sense and Sensibility is boring. I’ve read it, watched the movie, even worked backstage on a production of it. I don’t care for the story or the characters.

^me, at every character in Sense & Sensibility^

That’s my personal taste about one classic. After spending hours dealing with that particular Austen story, I still don’t like it. I think Edmund is the absolute worst Austen love interest and Marianne never deserves Colonel Brandon.

Not saying you have to spend hours and hours on a classic before deciding it’s boring or that you don’t like it. But do try to read it and judge the story, not the style. 

What about problematic classics? 

This is such a hard question to answer! The #1 book that comes to mind is Huckleberry Finn. And I’ve never read it, so it’s hard to know exactly how to answer.

But here’s what I would think about when it comes to messy books.

Is the problematic content treated as problematic? 

If a book showcases really bad stuff – racism in To Kill a Mockingbird as one example – do readers know this is bad? If bad stuff is in there just because it’s part of the culture and not as a critique, I think that’s a problem.

There are lots, and lots, and lots of messy things in Dickens books. Most of this stuff is not necessarily problems we deal with today. Child labor, prostitution and pickpocketing, thievery, grave robbing and racist snobbery.

Dickens wasn’t writing these horrible things just because he could. He wanted to show people how terrible things were and motivate his readers to change society.

That’s a good way to write problematic material. Bad stuff exists. Let’s write books that critique messy things and hope our readers go out and change the world.

Dickens experienced most of these evil things personally, too. I think that makes a big difference. Writing about the wrong that you’ve personally witnessed & not sugar coating bad stuff.

Like I’ve said, I haven’t read Mark Twain. I don’t know if his books encourage his readers not to accept racism. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t.

But there are lots of books that encourage readers not to accept racism. Let’s encourage kids to read those.

I’m not saying remove all the controversial books from our shelves. But let’s read books that build character. 

Also, having readers avoid messy books isn’t a solution. I think we need to read about characters dealing with tough situations. Characters who overcome bad things. Characters who choose good in a bad world.

Banning books is always bad. People choosing not to read certain books, not a bad thing. Let people choose, ok?

In which I try to write a conclusion…

Basically, I think ignoring any genre of books is a bad idea. Ignoring classics is really bad, because reading great writing grows you as a reader.
I’ll use my last paragraph just to shout about how much I love A Tale of Two Cities & Anne of Green Gables. If you decide to just read one classic, can you choose one of those two treasures??? Please?
If you’re really undecided about A Tale of Two Cities, here’s my review. Maybe it will help. 🙂

lets chat

Have you read many classics? Are you a fan of required reading?

How do you think problematic content should be handled in books? Have you read any banned books? 

Have you read A Tale of Two Cities? 

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14 Comments

  1. Chauncey Rogers February 7, 2018 / 1:16 pm

    I think some book bloggers undervalue classics a little. They’re very different from what we read today, and it can be tricky to appreciate them at times, but they certainly still have value. I think you did a great job at going through the reasons why.
    I generally agree with your cutoff date of 1950,though there are some exceptions from the ’50s, like Lord of the Flies and Atlas Shrugged.
    I think that one of the important reasons for knowing about classics, both in the way you defined them and in the sense of Homer and Shakespeare, is so that you can get the references. You know what I mean? People reference the classics a lot–in conversation, in film, in modern books. I think you appreciate all of those things more, if you have a knowledge of what they’re referencing. But that’s just my two bits…
    Great post! 🙂

    • Elizabeth Hunter February 10, 2018 / 9:31 am

      Yes, there are so many references to classics! And those references are everywhere! It makes me cringe when people just don’t know the references.

      I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged, but it’s hard for me to picture it as a classic? Like I’m not sure political philosophies can quite be categorized as classics? Maybe I’ll read Ayn Rand some day, but probably not. I know I disagree with her ideas, and if I want to defend capitalism I’d rather do it with something more balanced, like Adam Smith. Though I will admit to being more Keynesian in my economic theories because of how the modern world works.
      Ok, that was a lot of economic politics!!!

      • Chauncey Rogers February 10, 2018 / 4:01 pm

        I suppose you’re right that Atlas Shrugged might not be a good choice for a classic by our definitions, partially for the reason you said, and then also because it wasn’t especially popular when it was published. It wasn’t until later that it gained in popularity.
        Economics are tricky! I sometimes wonder if either model could work great, if we would just choose one and try and succeed with it. Sometimes I feel like the back and forth partial-attempt at both is the worst approach. But I’m not an economist. 😛 Not by a looong shot. 🙂

        Definitely gotta know the references, though. Same reason why watching classic Star Wars is important. 🙂

  2. ladypalutena February 7, 2018 / 1:34 pm

    I know you said “Throw out Shakespeare because it’s medieval/ancient,” but reading that it’s “medieval” made me absolutely cringe. Shakespeare was wayyy after the medieval period, and it was way after the renaissance period. It’s solidly Elizabethan literature.

    I would say that by starting “Classics” at 1790, you’re missing out on /so many/ other novels. I’d start them at 1700, at least. I mean, you’re just barely getting Jane Austen in there. On the other hand, I think cutting them off at 1950 is also cutting them short. I’d give them up until the 1960s.

    People reference classics all the time; there are a ton of references in modern books that a lot of people don’t get because they’ve never read the originals. I personally love reading classics, even though sometimes they’re difficult to read. I think I’ve only encountered maybe five or six out of the dozens I’ve read that I didn’t like. I think that requiring specific classics as reading is what causes people to hate them. In high school, for example, we were all required to read “Wuthering Heights,” and while I liked it, I know people who struggled. I feel like if there were a wider selection available and people could choose the ones they were most interested in, reading wouldn’t seem like such a chore any more. Or maybe even pairing a classic with a modern retelling; there are many of those out there, after all.

    • Elizabeth Hunter February 10, 2018 / 9:27 am

      They are a ton of things people just miss by ignoring classics. And so many authors write classical stuff into their stories, and people just don’t know about it!
      Wuthering Heights is such a hard book! I struggle with that book & by that I mean, I even struggle to watch the movie. 🤦🏼‍♀️

      I think what I’m aiming for in defining classics are books that the majority of the population read. Definitely not trying to cut out JA, her first novel was published in 1813, so not really cutting her out at all.

  3. mikaela @ thewellthumbedreader February 7, 2018 / 2:04 pm

    Ah, what a great discussion!

    I think the fact that I’m still in high school makes me super bored with classics. Sometimes, discussion about a book is good, but at the same time, talking about it over and over and over again while taking notes and also doing four-page packets and doing pop quizzes and then taking a test over the whole thing before we move on to the next one year after year after year…that’s what kills it for me.

    And I think it’s interesting, because I know classmates who have NEVER read a school book. They’ve gone their entire life reading Sparknotes and Clif Notes and Shmoop since middle school, and get good grades in English. I think it was only last week when a guy in my class said he didn’t understand the point of reading To Kill A Mockingbird because we all know racism is bad, so what’s the point of reading a book with that as the main theme, especially since Alabama is still a pretty racist place years and years after the book’s publication…which is just super depressing.

    So when I see that type of stuff, it sort of makes me wonder what’s the point, since I don’t feel like anyone’s learning anything. Who knows, maybe it’ll become something they like in the future? But for now, it seems like it’s not doing what it was supposed to be doing, I guess?

    (SORRY FOR THE LONG COMMENT EEP)

    • Elizabeth Hunter February 10, 2018 / 9:23 am

      Pop quizzes and four page packets would kill anything! Also, why are we doing the same thing for basically 4 years???
      Um, yeah, that guy needs whacked across the head. is he living under a rock? Ugh, that’s just SO ANNOYING.
      And I totally feel you about people not learning anything. I can’t imagine how teachers feel, since they put so much work into trying to teach.

      And long comments are awesome! Thanks Mikaela!!!!

  4. emmareadstoomuch February 8, 2018 / 5:59 pm

    this is such a fascinating post!!

    i love classics, though i don’t read them very often. i find i usually like the largest proportion of classics out of any genre i read. but i wonder how much school required reading had to do with that!

    some of my favorite classics had nothing to do with school. i was never made to read Jane Austen in school and she’s my favorite; i read gatsby on my own before it was school-assigned and loved it. but i had to read East of Eden for summer reading and i doubt i would have ever picked it up of my own volition. i love that book so much so i’m glad it was assigned to me.

    but also i know a lot of people really rebel against being assigned reading, and it makes them resent the books!! that’s not the case for me but it makes me nervous that a lot of people will never get to understand how wonderful classics can be.

    • Elizabeth Hunter February 10, 2018 / 9:20 am

      I think school reading is the worst. I do enjoy some required reading but most of the time I just forget about it and procrastinate till I’m way too rushed.
      Classics are so wonderful and it kind of breaks my bookworm heart how often they’re ignored.

  5. Annie February 10, 2018 / 11:16 am

    Yes, I am a fan of required reading! This year at school I’ve already read the Odyssey, and we’re reading the Aeneid right now. Those are two books I do not think I would’ve picked up on my own but am so glad to have read! I haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities yet but it’s summer reading for tenth grade so I will! My favorite classic is To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s not really a competition because it’s also my favorite book of all time.

  6. Karen Blue February 16, 2018 / 10:32 pm

    This is a great topic and so timely for me. I have never read the classics, but it is something I am starting to warm up to. Seriously, I was just discussing this on my weekly wrap up (that is scheduled for tomorrow). Thanks for the recs! I will check them out….eventually.

  7. Sammie February 24, 2018 / 11:36 am

    Oooh, I love this post. It’s a really apt conversation to have. I’ve read some classics. Certainly not all, not even the ones that are most recommended. It’s no secret that they can be hard to get through. Do I think they’re important to read? Heck yes. Most classics are classics for a reason. They made an impact in their time, for varying reasons, and often, they give a lot of insight about the time period they’re written about/in. Even in this day and age, I think it’s really easy for people to forget what the reality was even a hundred years ago, and it’s important not to lose sight of that. That’s only a generation ago.

    I’m really torn about the idea of required reading. On one hand, there are a lot of books that I really enjoyed that I probably wouldn’t have picked up if they hadn’t been required reading. On the other hand, there were a lot of books I hated that I wouldn’t have had to endure if they hadn’t been required reading. I will say, though, that I like the idea of it, at least, being forced to be exposed to something you normally wouldn’t read to at least give it a try. I still try to do that, and I’m still sometimes surprised with books I didn’t think I’d like but I did.

    I think your definition of classics cuts out most of the books I really like, though. On the one end, it cuts off things like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld (although, I can see how they’re not classics in the classic sense, but I love comedic fantasy and they’re some pretty big players in carving out that space). It also cuts out all the really old books that I loved like the Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Sun Tzu’s Art of War.

    I love problematic content in books, as long as it serves a purpose, because you know what? Real life isn’t, wasn’t, and probably will never be pretty, but it exists. Kids should know this. Especially kids who are lucky enough to be raised in fairly safe, affluent areas. That’s their reality, but it’s not the reality for a lot of people and hasn’t been in the past. Reading books about problems that really exist (or existed) in society builds awareness and empathy, and that’s already in short supply.

Drop some knowledge!