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Why do we Read Classic Literature?

Do you like to read? I love reading! I love nothing more than to get comfortable in my hammock under my cherry tree with a nice page turner, a book of my choice. Classics are in many cases not always first choice; they are mandatory reading material in high school, and although I like some of the classics and I am a teacher, I am not in favor of forcing someone to read a book he or she does not feel like reading. So, why do we read classic literature?

Why do we Read Classic Literature?

Because we want to? They’re famous? They’re classics? So you can actively participate in certain conversations? Whatever the reason, like modern day books, some classics are absolutely wonderful reads and others are just plain boring.

In this article I would like to explore why you should read the classics; why it is obligatory in our school system, why we may find some classics hard to read and tedious; and ultimately, which classics I recommend and which ones I did not enjoy so much. This last point is, of course, based on my personal opinion, but I will include testimonies from other readers as well.

Why Should You Read the Classics?

Why indeed? I know that many readers love The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde or Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. Nonetheless, I also know of many who hate Wuthering Heights (yours truly included) and who loath reading anything that was written by Shakespeare (yours truly not included, I love Shakespeare).

classic literature

So, let’s first answer the question why reading the classics is recommended.

  1. According to a study that was conducted in 2013, reading classic literature improves your social skills, such as empathy and emotional intelligence. Truth be told, a little more empathy is sorely needed nowadays.
  2. You’ll improve your vocabulary. Sure, you can also do that by reading modern books, but classic books have a richer use of vocabulary. Besides, if you venture as far as Ancient Greek and Latin classics, you will also enhance your knowledge of the English language, since many English words have Latin and Greek roots. read more
  3. Classics are classics because they have survived centuries of human history, and they did so for a reason. There are many books with stories, characters, and events that we can identify with, even today. Shakespeare was a master at displaying human emotions in his plays.

Have you ever seen the movie “Ten Things I hate About You” with the legendary Heath Ledger? That is based on a Shakespeare’s play, “The Taming of the Shrew.” The movie is great, and popular with many!

And as in modern literature, the classics include different genres such as fantasy, romance, science fiction, and so on, so you are bound to find something to your liking. 😉

  1. Almost every classic has a film! I don’t recommend watching the movie without reading the book first. It would be better to read the book and then see the film. Many of those films received excellent rewards.
  2. Literature is a human legacy. Every book comes from a different era, and with its content, descriptions, and character’s decisions it enables us to understand those time periods better, experience past history through the eyes of the protagonist.

Why are the Classics Mandatory in Schools?

The classics encourage cultural insight. Some classic tales involve complex human struggles that students can relate to. Moreover, when students go to college, they are expected to have some knowledge of the classics. They will be better prepared for college literature classes.

Classics are also part of human history, in many cases. For example, in Belgian school, our mandatory classic literature was Tijl Uylenspiegel and The Lyon of Flanders. Yes, I am deliberately taking an example that is perhaps less known in the world. Every country has their classics.

knights

Both books are part of Belgian history, and the Lyon of Flanders is a magnificent tale of the Flemish struggle against French occupation in the 14th Century. The book focuses on a particular battle in which the Flemish army – which was made up by militia, armed with just lances and bows and arrows – won a decisive victory against the French army which consisted of trained knights.

The-Lyon-of-Flanders

Tijl Uylenspiegel was a Dutch jester who was always up for any kind of mischief. It is not a book of laughter and merriment, though. His story takes place in the Middle Ages, and Tijl’s relatives and friends meet with lots of tragedy, torture and death brought on by the inquisition.

I remember how much I loved reading those classics when I was in junior high school. Both are excellent books.

Why are Some Classics Hard to Read?

That is a valid question. Although I thoroughly enjoyed some classics, I have to admit that some are a little difficult to read. The reasons for that could be any of the following:

1. First of all, this is the age of instant gratification. We need action NOW, If chapter 1 doesn’t take us anywhere exciting, boooooooring … drop the book. I often see this on Twitter, writers … (yes, writers!) who complain that they don’t like to read books that take too long before something happens, they hate long descriptions, they want action in the first chapter.

action
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash

This is obviously a personal opinion. I like long descriptions in a book. Well, not too long, of course. I don’t want to spend three pages reading about how a character is getting changed into a new dress … that would make me drop the book as well. ( I actually read a book that described a character shopping for clothes over two chapters … two chapters … that was too much, even for me 😉 and I’m patient.

I don’t mind, though, if the book takes a while before it allows some action to take place. After all, we have to get to know the characters, don’t we? How can you root for a character that starts slaying monsters on page 1 in chapter 1 if you don’t even know who he or she is and where he or she comes from? But that’s just me 😉

how do I write an ebook (editing and formatting tips included)

Classic tales are known for their excessive descriptions, and many modern-day readers do not like that. Especially nowadays when instant action is expected, classic tales may not please readers as much as they used to.

2. We are living in a different century, and we may not always understand characters that are described in a 19th Century setting, or any other Century.

I’m a teacher, and I often get that question from my 7th or 8th graders: “But why didn’t she say something?” “Why did she let him do that?” “Why didn’t she leave?” “Why didn’t he tell him what a horrible person he was?” I always tell my students the same thing: “It was a different time period, things were different. Roles of men and women were not like today.” And I remind them of some lessons we had about that.

student discussion

3. Reading classics takes time. Yes, it can be time-consuming, especially if the literature is forced on you and you really don’t like it …

4. Vocabulary can be hard. Although I mentioned earlier on that the classics can help you improve your vocabulary, much vocabulary is sometimes difficult to understand, and we may have to consult the dictionary …

5. There isn’t always a happy ending. Classic tales did not always depict a hero who was impossible to kill and who always made it out alive with a beautiful bombshell by his side. In the classics, there are many tragic endings, and some readers are not into that. Happy endings are more popular.

My Personal List of Yay and Nay

Yay

  • The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde the-picture-of-dorian-grey
  • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
  • Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
  • Midsummernight´s Dream, William Shakespeare
  • Othello, William Shakespeare
  • Many more by Shakespeare, I am a big fan of his 🙂
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • Animal Farm, George Orwell
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding
  • Tijl Uylenspiegel, Charles de Coster
  • Anything by Charles Dickens
  • Sons and Lovers, D.H. Lawrence
  • The Lyon of Flanders, Hendrik Conscience
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (and other books by her)
  • Edgar Allan Poe (everything)
  • and I’m going to stop here, because there are too many that I like 😉

Charlotte-Bronte

Nay

  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë

emily-bronte-wuthering-heights

I’m so sorry, but that story exasperated me … Such a strong desire for vengeance, for a slight that occurred during the main character’s childhood … I found it too mentally cruel, and a tad too unrealistic, even for that time period. After I did some research I learned that the author, Emily Brontë, was known to seldom leave her home and have few friends. So, maybe that explained the – what I perceived as – unrealistic descriptions in Wuthering Heights. Of course, this is just my personal opinion and others may find it an absolute masterpiece. I have spoken to others who have read it, though, and they were of a similar opinion.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heights

I think that Wuthering Heights is one of those books, either you love it or you hate it. Unfortunately, it did not provoke any love in me, but I love Emily’s sister’s work, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

emily-bronte-wuthering-heights
I like to be fair, though. So, I am adding a positive review as well 😉

Final Thoughts

So, there you go, some things are really very personal, especially when it comes to books. I love the classics, as you can tell, and I love reading. This is why I have understanding for students who are forced to read literature they don’t want to read. I always pick what I want to read. In school, I was a voracious reader too, so I never minded the obligatory literature. I can understand, though, that some may have no interest in it.

I think it is important to read a few classics, but as I said before, nearly all of them have a movie. So, if you are not a reader, you can still see the film. Although most movies are never like the book – I know, that can be disappointing – when it comes to the classics, I find that film productions stuck to the original stories.

film

Are you an avid reader? Which classics have you read and which ones are on your reading list? Do you think that the classics with their usually extensive descriptions and (most) tragic endings will survive this era of instant gratification? Let me know in the comments. I am looking forward to seeing your opinions.

 

8 thoughts on “Why do we Read Classic Literature?

  1. Hi
    I count myself among the class of avid readers. And an avid reader of classic literature particularly. I added both of the books you recommended from your school days to my Amazon wishlist. We’ll see when I get round to it. So much of my time these days is taken up writing content for my website. One thing I would suggest – The classics from previous centuries are often available on Kindle at low or no cost. The advantage being it is so easy to look up a word you don’t know on a Kindle. Not so if you have to fumble with a hardcopy. Here are my favorites – Dickens. I will probably continue until I have read all 57 of his books. To your list I would add the Russian greats – Tolstoy, Dostoevski. I also read Hugo and sometimes the French originals. This is too big a subject for short treatment.I also read classic non-fiction. The decline and fall of the Roman empire is a great read. Modern writers I would add Herman Hesse, Umberto Eco, William Boyd. btw I do like Wuthering Heights, also Dracula, Frankenstein.
    Something I found interesting was to read the very earliest writings which were sort of novels written at a time when the novel form was in its early stages. Moll Flanders and Don Quixote are good examples. Those can be really challenging reads as the notion of creating a main character arch wasn’t really there and the narratives wander without much direction.
    Give me long descriptions any day – Hugo spends about 50 to 100 (I can’t remember exactly how many) pages in the beginning of Les Miserables describing the carnage of the battle of Waterloo, just to lay the scene to paint the intense venality and depravity of Thenardier whom most people would know as the Inn Keeper and set the social context of the story.
    I could go on
    Thanks for this great piece – and the recommendations.
    Best regards
    Andy

    1. Hi Andy,

      Thank you for adding all these names! Tolstoy definitely deserves a place on this list, and so does Victor Hugo. I thoroughly enjoyed reading Tolstoy’s books. Les Miserables is a masterpiece. Hermann Hesse, Thomas Mann, there are so many …too many to mention 😉 Bram Stoker’s Dracula is another timeless classic. I agree that it is too big a subject for short treatment, and I thank you for your valuable input! 🙂

  2. Thank you so much for insightful article, Christine! I personally love reading classic literature, and Shakespeare was my favorite in school (my three favorite Shakespeare plays are Macbeth, a Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Hamlet). I would literally become giddier than a kid in a candy store when I saw that we were getting ready to read a Shakespeare play (though I absolutely ADORE action-packed stories! Haha). They certainly teach us valuable life lessons about patience, love, loyalty, honor, respect, honesty, God, etc. My vocabulary improved drastically from reading classic literature; I’ll always be grateful for it! Great read! God bless you!

    1. Thank you! I absolutely love Shakespeare’s work and I cannot get enough of it 🙂 There are indeed so many values to be learned from classic literature 🙂

  3. Oh, I’ve read the classics in high school and university but that was long ago. I even used to have my literature books from university with some classics in them, but as I needed space I donated them to a library. Wish I hadn’t as now I want to read classics out loud for our grandson.
    I don’t read much anymore as I’m constantly trying to prepare for self-employment but when I did I would read anything Stephen King or Anne Rice. In high school my favorite author was Isaac Asimov and I still have his books.
    Thanks for your list of favorites, I’ll check into them once I start my reading out loud campaign for our grandson.

    1. Hi Les,

      I have also read a lot of Anne Rice and Stephen King books. Isaac Asimov is another excellent writer!
      I also had so many books, and I either gave them away or lent them to someone and didn’t get them back 😉
      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Why do we read classic literature is just as you have shared, they are the best books you can read and have been popular and in print for a very long time. I seen there are some on your list I have missed reading, and this does surprise me since I have been an avid reader for a very long time.

    I plan to add the books on your list to my books to read list
    Jeff

    1. Hi Jeff,

      The list is endless, isn’t it? I also thought that I had read most of them, but there are still so many classics that I have not read yet. There is still so much catching up to do. 🙂

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