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So, is reading classic books a waste of time? Since I’m a classic literature and history YouTuber, you might expect me to say, “No. You should definitely read classics. You’re dumb and have horrible taste otherwise. Here’s a list of the 100 books all humans should read before they die. Go forth and dedicate hours of your life to savoring their wisdom.”
And I feel like that’s a message many people get from their English professors or society in general. This idea that reading classics is somehow a mark of intelligence and refinement and good taste.
And, so society can exert pressure on us to read literature. But what if you don’t like classic literature? What if you have post-traumatic flashbacks to high school when your teacher forced you to read The Old Man and the Sea or Of Mice and Men? Or what if picking up War and Peace makes you hyperventilate? Should you force yourself to read it anyway?
Here’s my opinion.
Reading classic literature is pointless if you don’t have a personal reason why you want to read it. A reason beyond feeling like you should because of societal expectations, or it making you look smarter, or it’s on a big list of books to read before you die.
You need a solid inner reason why.
And finding that reason requires understanding what classic literature is and what it isn’t.
So in this post, we’ll break down what makes a book a classic. Spoiler alert: it’s not because it’s binge-worthy good. Then we’ll talk about the different functions classics fulfill and reasons you might want to read them. And finally, we’ll talk about when and if classic literature is worth reading.
Because ultimately, I’m a big believer that people should enjoy what they read. And frankly, not all classic literature is enjoyable.
What even are classic books?
So why are classic books considered classics?
First, let me clear up one misconception. They’re not necessarily classic because they’re interesting, enjoyable, engaging, or good. And by good, I mean the type of binge-worthy book where you connect with the characters and cheer on your OTP. Some classics are like that. And those are awesome.
But really, a lot of classic books are dull, weird, confusing, irritating, depressing, and pointless at times.
Classic books aren’t classic because they’re enjoyable.
Instead, classics are classics because scholars think they’re important in some way. Not good. Important.
They have to have lasting cultural and educational value and high artistic merit. Those are the requirements a book has to meet for scholars to accept it into something called the “literary canon.”
A canon is a collection or list of books that meet specific requirements.
So literature scholars examine books to determine if they meet those requirements. They look at a book and ask, does this have artistic merit? Educational value? Cultural worth?
If the literary canon were a night club, these scholars would be the bouncers at the door kicking out any low-worth books that try to sneak into the exclusive hang out of masterpieces.
Now, it’s important to note that scholars extensively debate what books are or are not canon. After all, what really is lasting cultural and educational value? Who defines artistic merit? Scholars disagree with each other, but mostly about lesser-known authors and books. So there is no one official list of what is or is not considered part of the literary canon.
Meanwhile, the literary giants that have become household names like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Brontë enjoy admittance universally to the canon.
But what about those lesser-known books that get debated? For example, I talk about The Scarlet Pimpernel in my video five classic books that are nothing like their movies. Does the Scarlet Pimpernel qualify as actual canon? Probably not for a lot of scholars.
Why? Elitism has much to do with it. It’s not noteworthy enough and possibly too much aimed toward general entertainment.
Some scholars disdain popular books. They’re the original hipsters who’ve been looking down on what the masses like before it was cool.
So this is an important point: just because a book is old doesn’t necessarily make it part of the literary canon. And likewise, just because a book isn’t canon doesn’t mean it’s not good. Remember, you’ve got some elitist hipsters calling the shots, and their judgment isn’t always reliable.
Also, often the literary canon gets attacked for focusing on white, male-centric works. However, it’s been in a flux state to accept a broader range of perspectives and multi-cultural voices in recent years.
So, to sum up, what is classic literature in super simple terms? They’re books considered “important” by scholars because of their cultural, educational, and artistic value.
Now, the reasons an individual book is important vary. And really, the reasons that make them important are also the same reasons you might want to read them. So, next, let’s explore those reasons.
The Ultimate Gift Guide for Book Lovers
Different Reasons to Read Classic Literature
Here are some of the defining characteristics of classic works and reasons you might be interested in reading them.
A Book Helps You Understand a Specific Period in History
Classic books often give us insight into a particular period in ways that no history book can. They capture people’s everyday lives, manners, and social customs. As well as giving us a fascinating look into society’s overall feelings and viewpoints.
For example, The Great Gatsby does an outstanding job of showing how in flux 1920s American Society was in the wake of the first world war.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter shows us a time when puritan standards ruled supreme in the new world.
And Charles Dicken’s work captures the plight of the poor in the face of the industrial revolution of Victorian England with gusto.
So if you’re interested in history and understanding what a particular time was like, definitely look for classics set, and if possible, written in those periods.
A Book Is The Defining Work of a Literary Era
Similar to understanding a historical era, books can also help you know literary eras. Literary periods are chunks of time when specific trends, writing styles, and topics ruled supreme. And of course, this in itself gives you insight into what was happening in society at the time.
For example, during the English Restoration period (1660-1700), writing could be quite crude, bawdy, and satirical.
Later, we see The Age of Sensibility (1745-1785), when they put an enormous amount of importance on having deep, refined, and overpowering emotions. And those delicate sentiments caused a rejection of such crass Restoration works. In Fanny Burney’s novel, Evelina, we see this when the ladies recoil while attending a bawdy play written during the Restoration period.
Then, in the next era of Romanticism (1785-1832), we see a similar rejection of the Age of Sensibility’s over the top emotional responses. Jane Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, responds to that era and uses Marianne’s storyline to highlight the dangers of letting your emotions rule you.
So really, understanding one era of literature in some ways requires understanding its place in the massive scheme of things.
A Book Embodies A Major Shift In Writing Style
If you compare how Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales, to Shakespeare’s playwriting style to Hemingway’s odes to Show Don’t Tell, you can easily see many different writing styles.
What’s interesting is that these styles developed and changed over time. And like, say, Hemingway, sometimes a writer’s style would go on to change the way all writers after him wrote. This makes these writer’s works noteworthy from the perspective of style changes and development.
A Book Defines or Is A Major Milestone of a Genre
So some books define or are major milestones of a genre.
Take science fiction, for example. You have Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, all the works of Jules Verne, and then Asimov’s Robot series. These are significant works in that genre.
You also have trailblazing feminist authors like Virginia Woolf. Then you have the major Hispanic and Black literary works.
A Book Provides Social Commentary That Makes You Examine Politics, Society or The Nature of Humanity
This is a major one. I think many classic works often aim to make some significant point on a deep philosophical topic.
For example, Lord of the Flies teaches us it’s a bad idea to leave boys alone on a deserted island.
Meanwhile, To Kill a Mockingbird pronounces racism bad. Brave New World shows that too much technology is bad. Dicken’s Christmas Carol shows being a selfish older man is bad.
Orwell’s 1984 asserts communism is bad. Then you have the same author’s Animal Farm that teaches us not only is communism still awful, but pigs are terrifyingly evil if given despotic communist powers.
Watch out for those pigs.
A Book Resonates Across Time Because It’s Interesting and Enjoyable to Read
As I said earlier in this video, a book being a classic doesn’t mean it’s exciting and relatable. But some are.
I think one that’s a perfect example of this is Alcott’s Little Women. Here’s a book that teaches us much about life in the American North during the Civil War and household dynamics during that time. But I think, ultimately why Little Women is so famous is because it’s just good. It’s relatable. Upon reading the book, most girls worldwide immediately identify with one or more of the March sisters. And I think it’s because of that timeless appeal that Little Women has survived in the literary canon.
A Combination Of More Than One Of These Reasons
Now, most classics in the canon have more than one of these marks of greatest going for them.
For example, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Her books capture the period of the Regency, complete with its manners and world view. They explore the moral themes present in the society of the time and the struggle between marrying for love or money.
Pride and Prejudice examines human nature and the interaction of pride, prejudice, and misunderstandings.
It’s quintessential of a significant writing style shift into social realism where stories focused more on ordinary people in everyday life. We see characters speaking to each other like real humans rather than going off on long monologues.
And, honestly, Pride and Prejudice is just good. It’s interesting. The characters are relatable. And it created the standard framework for most romantic comedies still used today.
Find Your Why
So after looking at all these reasons why you might want to read classic literature, it’s time for you to find your personal why.
What do you want to learn? Or understand better? What period in history interests you? What topics? What genres? What do you love? What do you hate?
Find what you’re passionate about and follow that.
Do you want to understand what society was like in Victorian times? Read Dickens, Gaskell, and Bronte.
Want to know why giving despotic communist power to pigs is a bad idea? Read Animal Farm.
And overall, I’d recommend you find something you enjoy.
Because, honestly, if you’re not enjoying what you’re reading and learning, what’s the point?
Story Time: Life Lessons from High School
I’m going to pass along some wisdom my high school English teacher gave to me.
In high school, I determined to read the list of 100 Classic Books You Need to Read Before College.
And I hated it. Book after book, I had a miserable time. Occasionally, I’d stumble across something I loved, but mostly I remember long hours of wondering when I’d finally finish this book.
Anyway, every quarter in my English class, we had to turn in a reading reflection paper. In this paper, we had to write about all the books we had read in our free time and what we thought of them.
Paper after paper I turned in looked mostly the same. It was a long list of everything I hated about these books I was reading.
Finally, one day my teacher handed the paper back to me, and she wrote in bright red pen this profound statement: “Why do you keep reading these books you hate?”
And I remember staring at it in confusion. What does she mean? Doesn’t she recognize these titles? They’re classics. They’re on the list of books I’m supposed to read to be educated. I read them because somebody told me I was supposed to.
And then I paused. Slowly, I started to realize, maybe that wasn’t a good enough reason. These books were slowly killing my love of reading. I had gone from a girl who couldn’t be pulled away from her book to one who dreaded having to finish these classics. All because someone else had told me I should read them.
So I started to read what I wanted to read again. And it was great. And honestly, a lot of what I like to read are classics and older books. But among them, I had found my why, my niche, and the subjects I love to learn about, and books I enjoy reading. So on this channel, you might notice I talk about authors like Austen and Gaskell and the Age of Sensibility through the Victorian era a lot because that’s my jam.
Meanwhile, I hate reading Hemingway with passion. And I’m sorry, Thoreau, but no one cares about your pond.
So that is my advice to all of you out there. Find what you love, what you’re interested in, and read that. Because ultimately, reading classics is pointless if you hate it. Read because you want to. Not because you think you should.
Anyway, that’s my opinion.
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