Is reading classics a must?

A few weeks back I discussed hyped books and literary snobs and there was a recurring theme that I considered interesting for another discussion post: Classics. I’ve also been seeing around the tag #SaveTheClassics from Olivia @LibroLivNot which I found pretty cool (click the hashtag to check it out at her blog). All of this got me thinking – is reading classics really a must? Should everyone read them? I’ve been mulling over these questions in my head for quite a while now and I think that, as in every discussion, there are many perspectives. So today I’ll be talking about why people should or shouldn’t read classics and I would love to hear your input on this!

WHY SHOULD WE READ CLASSICS?

There are many reasons. First of all, if a book is considered a classic, it means that it endured the test of time and has remained relevant through the years. This tells us it carries a story we can learn from, so by reading classics we can then come to know history, vocabulary and language, human experiences from different perspectives, we can understand the way society worked at a period in time, and so on. Knowledge comes with all books, but classics give us an authentic insight into people’s lives in the past and their values, which means we get to understand history, culture, and society in context. Literature is an indivisible part of our history, so it’s integral for our education.

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. – Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature

Do you love a specific genre? By reading its classics we get to see its origins, understand its characteristics better and become well-versed in it. The legacy of a genre is important to be able to comprehend the big picture of its development, that is, where it started, how it evolved and where it could go in the future. But it doesn’t stop there. If you are a writer, it helps you avoid pitfalls of the genre. How have classics endure the test of time? They clearly did something right, so you have to read them and see what it is they did and how you can emulate it.

BY POPULAR DEMAND

Classics are the most known books among the general public because they have passed from generation to generation and are taught to us in school or referenced all around us constantly. They made a mark so deep we can even see their effects in our own languages. Because of this important legacy, classics are used as the pillars of literature-they become points of reference. By reading classics we get to share a mostly common literary knowledge with other people, a base or archetype that we can reference without much explanation and people will still understand because they’ve become examples. Say you are told to write a tragedy, but you have no idea what that entails. What do you think of first? A known tragedy, probably Romeo and Juliet. Isn’t that a fantastic start?

BUT IS READING CLASSICS REALLY A MUST?

Part of the answer comes hand in hand with literary snobbery. Sometimes people expect others to know certain books because they are classics, but different schools, upbringings or even countries will define classics differently. The classics taught at my school, like Lanzas Coloradas by Arturo Uslar Pietri, were mostly Latin-American because I’m from Venezuela, so reading Pride and Prejudice wouldn’t have taught us the historical impact of literature in our country or even neighboring countries. I’m not saying reading classics from other countries is wrong or doesn’t teach anything, not at all, but it’s clear that each country has its history and sometimes teaching that through literature is the lesson’s objective. People who expect others to have read certain classics without falter tend to fail to see that, as well as believing that classics are the only worthwhile books-this is when judging people by what they read comes in.

CLASSICS AND CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE

Besides required reading in school, we shouldn’t be forced to pick classics if they are not personally interesting to us. If we don’t think we have anything new to gain from a classic, why waste our precious reading time with it? It all comes down to the matter of personal taste. I think some people who only read classics and shame others who don’t might not notice something very important: some of our contemporary literature will be the classics of the future. Imagine that, reading a classic in its own time! I think a lot of people would agree that Harry Potter will be a classic in children’s/young adult literature through the years because its themes are universal, they have been incredibly popular so far, and new readers keep falling in love with it.

IS IT OR NOT A MUST?

Whether you prefer to read classics, contemporary literature, or both, I will always say that reading what makes you happy is what’s important, but it’s necessary to keep in mind that literature is essential to our education. So, going back to our main question, is reading classics a must? Well, the answer is yes and no (is that answer cheating?). When we are talking about required reading in schools or books that can be part of our education, I say yes. Classics are historical, they’re part of humanity’s growth. Learning of the past teaches how we can improve in the now and in the future as human beings. I don’t mean that we can only learn by reading classics, but they are an incredible source, and paired with contemporary literature they are a powerful learning tool.

Reading classics as a hobby is not a must, as I said before, it’s personal taste and nobody should be forced to pick any books they don’t want to. Even so, I would still recommend people to read them. I think classics are surrounded by major buzzkills: high expectations and fear. People are scared of them, of not being able to understand them, finding them boring or simply ‘meh’. If that’s why you won’t read classics, then I urge you to try one that calls to you and give it a go. You can always leave it aside if you don’t like it and there’s no harm done.

All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hours, and the books of all Time. ― John Ruskin, Sesame and Lilies

So as you can see, there’s no straight answer. It’s a complicated subject, at least in my eyes, and I would love to hear your thoughts on it. I would like to close the discussion with that quote by John Ruskin. I think both classes of books mentioned are worthwhile and that the categories might vary for each person. A book that means the world to me could be a book of the hours to you, and a book I despise could be a book of all Time for many other people. You don’t have to love classics, but I don’t think you can deny their impact either.

Do you consider classics a big part of our history? What are your thoughts on this?

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41 thoughts on “Is reading classics a must?

  1. I love that you chose both sides! 🙂 Personally, I can rarely get into a classic if I’m reading it for fun (unless it’s a favourite), but I always loved reading classics at school. The idea that I was finally getting to read this “big” book that everybody older than me had read made me feel like I’d just hit a certain milestone in my life, haha. Like I finally knew something that everybody else knew. And I don’t think English education systems could manage without them!

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    1. That’s such a cool way to see, I love it. It’s the history behind the books, knowing a lot of people know them and have read them through time that’s so interesting. How they survive through generations. I don’t think an education is complete without literature, it’s so so important to me.

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  2. Ooh, this is such a lovely discussion! I’m nodding in agreement to every point. I guess it just comes down to taste, and we should never force anybody to read classics because they’re the only books ‘worth reading’. That simply isn’t true. Classics do endure the test of time (and personally for me, reading about history and how people lived is important) but that does not mean we should only read about the past and ignore books from our own times. As you say, some day our books will become classics. The least you can do is acknowledge the significance of classics. 🙂

    This is a great post!

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    1. Thank you! Exactly, we need to know as much of the past as the present to be fully aware of our existence. I would love to travel in time and see which books from our time became classics, which books will define our era.

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  3. Good discussion. I feel like classic books can give current stories context but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to read them. I feel like everyone knows the story of Pride and Prejudice, or at least the main characters, but reading it enriches the story and lets you be more savvy when reading other books in the romance genre.

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    1. Thank you! That’s something I forgot to mention. It’s about appreciating classics for what they are, having read them or not. My example, Romeo and Juliet, was one that I haven’t read, but I recognize as a classic and know the story/adaptations. It’s such a broad topic, thank you for your input!

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      1. Yea. What I have an issue with is when a child or a young adult reads a classic. There are reimagining of Bronte novels for young adults which are just the plots with a more modern twist. While that can be great I want to facepalm when someone says: “I read this great book called Jane!”

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      2. Oh no, assuming young readers can’t read or understand the classics is such a big mistake. I’m not a big fan or reimaginings per se, but the modern twist on things bothers me for some reason. That is another great topic for discussion :O Thank you for bringing that up!

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      3. It’s not so much that it bothers me because it can be done well. I enjoy seeing Shakespeare done in different time periods but stripping away much of a character to make them more appealing makes bile rise in my throat and I assume the author is rolling in their graves.

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  4. I love this discussion post! ‘Literary snobbery’ is a great term – though I think it also applies to people who think that people who don’t read books as lesser human beings (to clarify, I don’t agree).

    I also love your stance on classics! I’ve read a couple for school but very rarely pick up a classic now that I’ve graduated, and I agree that they’re classics for a reason. They’re usually very progressive in their time, and they do have an impact on society. 😛

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    1. Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed the post 😀 Yes, you’re right, I hadn’t thought of that. Reading doesn’t instantly make you a better human being, it’s just another activity or another way to learn things, everyone does different things.

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  5. Excellent post! You did a great job expressing all sides of the topic! I definitely agree that having a foundation with classics makes the rest of your reading more informed and enriched. But of course, if you don’t like classics, you shouldn’t feel obligated to read them for fun. Though I am of the opinion that there is at least one classic out there for everyone.

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  6. Even though I don’t read classics, I think classics are important. They make me feel like books really can live forever, that even once the author dies… their words, their thoughts, the world and characters they created, will live forever.

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    1. That’s nice 🙂 I hope you enjoy those. What happens to a lot of people is that they don’t enjoy whatever they are being told to read because they feel pressured and obligated. It takes part of the enjoyment. I usually enjoyed all books for school, but I’ll admit there were a few that I wanted to burn 😛

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  7. Love this post! I believe it’s our choice if we want to read classic or not. But yes, if someone doesn’t like reading classics even after giving it a try, then I think they shouldn’t force it on themselves because they’ll end up hating it for life. Nonetheless, I loved how you stated your view on this subject.

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  8. Great post!
    I think classics are really good and although they have huge impact on those who read the a d understand them. I think they are not necesseraly must.
    Let me tell you why I think so: here in Croatia, in schools, we are bombared with classics. From Dostojevski, trough Hamingway and to croatian ones that are so boring you’d need a new word to describe how boring and dull they are.
    And most of us croatian ppl never actually read them but only learnt sth about them and pretended we read them.
    I don’t think we lost something important if we haven’t read classics.
    I also think you need to be ready, have an emotional intelligence and be capable to understand classics in order to fully enjoy them.
    When I was in school, I couldn’t appreciate classics bc I tought they were boring and I never understand them the way I do now. Today, I can appreciate them bc I can say I am in stage of my life when I u derstand them and can get so much from them, when in hugh school I wasn’t emotionally invested or ready for them.

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    1. That’s a great point, thanks for your input! That’s tough literature for school. We never went into things that were too hard in mine, but with required reading everyone sorts of struggles so I see your point. I think that even knowing about the books without reading them is good. Overall the ideal situation for me is picking books that your class can relate, books they can take away something useful from. That’s why I think schools should do a mix of classics and contemporary books.

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      1. I totally agree with you! Here in my country school program when it comes to required reading is aweful and the sad thing is – everyone knows it, from students, their parents to teachers snd those in goverment. That’s why there are lots of protests lately requing that something needs to change and we expect thet in the next few years our students will have better school program then we had.

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  9. I’ve only ever read the classic Jane Eyre and I HATED it. I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve loved it and it’s still relevant today. As a teenager in this modern world I can say that this book has noting to do with modern issues and is kind of degrading to females. I don’t think anyone should be put down for not reading classics because they want to read something relevant to today’s issues.

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    1. I actually haven’t read Jane Eyre yet, I’m scared of hating it as you did. If the case is that it’s degrading to women, I can see how it is relevant, but I also understand why you wouldn’t like it. I’m glad you agree with me that nobody should be shamed for what they read! Thanks for joining in on the discussion 🙂

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  10. Classics definitely contribute to a big part of history, but it’s not something we should read but more of a must than as something we are required to read. There are two books at our school, however, that are written by Jose Rizal that we are required to read in ninth and tenth grade. I don’t have complaints about it, though it could be quite constricting when we’re required to read them.

    I’m not a fan of classics myself. I’ve tried, but to no avail. They just aren’t for me. >.< Maybe one day I'll pick one up again and by that time I'll come to love at least one classics in my lifetime.

    Great post, Esther!

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    1. Thank you! Well, that’s okay! I do hope that if you try one again you end up enjoying it 🙂 I didn’t know José Rizal, thank you for bringing him to my attention!

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  11. I have a shelf full of the classics and every time I think I’m ready to pick one, something else comes along. I’ve read a few and it’s nice to get the little remarks that people in RL make regarding a classic, or a reference in a contemporary book I’m reading and TV/movies.

    I think the classics are to be read at any time, it doesn’t matter if you’re young, if you’re reading to feel included or because you want to, they have endured the test of time like you said and they can offer something new to every reader no matter the age and the reason they are reading the classics. Great topic!

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    1. Thank you! It happens to me too, I leave the classics for last in my TBR because they can be intimidating sometimes, but when I finally pick them up, I usually enjoy them and forget why I was leaving them aside.

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  12. I always think of this idea and you cover it well! Reading classics is important for me purely to form your own opinion on author rather than believe that these classics are the greatest. It broadens your interests and opens gateways to reading different genres. I like that you addressed the snobbery which some people have when reading classics. I’ve known quite a few that believe they are above others because they have read all of Joyce or Hemingway.

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    1. Thank you! That’s how it is for me. I read them with an open mind, which means giving the book credit for becoming a classic but also being critical of the work (and the author) itself.

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  13. I agree with the answer yes and no. I think it is really important to branch out and read something you may not have attempted before, and this is where the classics are good. BUT you are still classified as a reader if you do not read classics. It’s just a matter of personal preference.

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    1. Exactly, it’s a personal choice and I can’t judge anyone for not reading a classic or for reading only classics either. I would still recommend them, but never force them on to anyone.

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  14. Honestly, a lot of classic books I just can’t seem to finish reading. My favorite genre is memoirs. Through these books I feel like I can learn new things; whether it be about a person, a different culture, or a different lifestyle. I can’t get enough!

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