Reading the classics

It’s often being said by someone or other that a person’s reading life is somehow incomplete or lacking if they haven’t read any of the classics. What do you think? And what makes a classic a classic anyway?

In my opinion, and this is probably an extreme oversimplification, classics survive as classics because they are loved, respected and admired from generation to generation. (Which leaves me with the obvious question – where are these people who have loved and admired The Sound and the Fury, because I need them to explain a thing or two…like everything that happened after page one.)

I went through a bit of a phase of reading lots of classics, and while some have had a deep and lasting positive effect on me (every one of my friends has had Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre (or both for the very lucky ones) pushed on them at some stage), there were others that left me with nothing but a few extra frown lines (I’m looking at you Sound and the Fury). So, should we bother?

I’m a big believer in people being left alone to read whatever the hell they want to read and not be judged for it, but I also see the value in reading some of the books that have stood the test of time, if for no other reason than to have a legitimate cause for complaint when they (inevitably) botch the movie version(s).

I’m don’t know about forcing young people to read them though – if someone had made me read The Sound and the Fury when I was a teenager I’m not sure I ever would have picked up a book again.

I think most book lovers will find their way to the classics eventually and, hopefully, they’ll find the ones that resonate with them; despite my extra frown lines, the unbridled joy of Austen far outweighs the scars (both mental and physical) of Faulkner – a life without Mr Darcy is no life for me.

How about you? Do you think reading the classics is necessary?

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6 replies »

  1. I’m an equal opportunities reader I think. I like to try from every genre, era etc although my one rule is that if it’s a genre I don’t read much about that, that it’s a title that has been well received by others. In this way I suppose all classics fit my description.

    I don’t think anyone must read classics (or anything for that matter) but I do feel that if someone reads only horror/YA/literary/crime and never dips a toe into other waters now and then, then they might be missing out.

    This hit home for me a few years ago when a classmate in a creative writing class foisted Marian Keyes on my. Keyes is an author whose book covers are invariably pink, sparkly and get tagged chick-lit. This was a genre that for years I could not, would not get on board with. Then, under duress, I read Watermelon – and it was brilliant. Witty, funny, clever, thoughtful – you name it. She’s a very successful author and deservedly so.

    I think with classics people can be afraid that they’ll pick up an impenetrable book (Sound and the Fury?) but of course most classics are not difficult because they are older.

    So yeah, that’s a really long and windy way of saying that classics are not necessary but a persons life can be enriched by trying something new – classics included. 🙂

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    • Totally agree – I love being surprised by a genre or book that I completely expected to hate. I’m a big Marian Keyes fan as well – but, like you, I was pretty dubious at first. I hadn’t read much chick lit (for want of a better term – I really hate calling it that), and then I read This Charming Man, and it was awesome. Everything that you said about Watermelon – laugh-out-loud funny and clever and wonderful, relatable characters. If you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend.

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  2. Necessary only if it is required reading for a course and if that type of writing rocks one’s boat. However, it is not a style I will force on anyone because like you said it can cure someone from reading forever.

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    • I think it’s a matter of personal choice, in the end, whether to read the classics or not. Personally, I choose to do so, for many reasons. I like that lots of other people have read them – giving me lots of opportunity to chatter about them. I find it reassuring and less risky – if so many have thought them worth reading previously, I’m fairly sure I’ll get something out of reading them. By contrast, picking up a brand new book is inherently risky – how do I know that it’s a worthwhile investment of my time and money? After all, all one has to go on is the hyperbolic fluff of publishers pushing sales. I like the time travel element that most classics offer, putting the reader in a different time and different place. But most of all I like the fact that the classics have something more on offer than a few hours entertainment (don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a put that just offers entertainment). If they don’t teach, or expose, or provoke thought or something, then the book is really not a classic at all.

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      • So true – knowing that it’s a classic means you don’t have to read lots of reviews and risk reading spoilers, the fact that it’s stood the test of time is recommendation enough.

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      • Ahhhh, I sort of understand where you are coming from. I have a love for most genres of books on the whole. I read books when the summary of the book or a film based on the book interests me. I also have a crazy love for films, so I love when there are films based on books especially if I love the book. Classics fall within that range for me, especially that ole time ago. I am drawn to literature with age.

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