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?
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).
So, let’s first answer the question why reading the classics is recommended.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 😉
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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.
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
- The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde
- 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 😉
- Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
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.
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.
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.
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.