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 Are they too out of date or boring?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. 🙂
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?