Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why Do We Read Classics?

First things first: I know that there are thousands of people, from book bloggers to literary critics, who have written about this topic before. I wasn't inspired by any particular one of them, but it's a common topic that I happen to have a lot to say about. And because of that, I'm probably just going to be rambling here.

There are billions of lists entitled something like "X Books Everyone Should Read in Their Lifetime," with X being any number from 5 to 1,001. (And probably more than that,t those are the really intimidating ones. And most of the books on these lists are "classics," a term that no one can ever quite define beyond the basics of a) lots of people have read it and b) it was probably published a long time ago. Classics has become a genre of its own, uniting books as different as Animal Farm, The Iliad, and Persuasion.

So why are these lists so popular? Why do we read classics? I've come up with a few possibilities that I think are fairly common, though they in no way represent the full spectrum of reasons that people read classics.
  • These are classics, so I should read them. This is who I used to be - reading classics for the sake of reading classics.
  • Classics are so deeply set into culture that I should read them to figure out other references. I think this one might be more for movies than books, but classic books are referenced in so many newer books - and so many other things - that reading the original can give you a new appreciation for a lot of things. And that's not even counting retellings.
  • I'm being required to read this book for school. For this one, all I can do is apologize and hope you're getting some enjoyment out of it.
A while ago, I lived by those reading lists. I didn't read a huge number of classics (and I still don't read all that many), but I always had the idea that someday, I'd cross all the books off of all of those lists and read all the classics that ever existed. It wasn't until about a year ago that I stopped to ask myself why that was so important to me.

There is no single genre that I can look at and honestly say: "I want to read all the books." Not even weirdly specific ones like dark young adult American historical fiction, although that's probably the one that comes closest. So why would I do this with classics, which have a lot less in common than books in other genres?

A number of unfortunate experiences with required reading in school had already taught me that I wouldn't like every classic I read (*cough*Death of a Salesman*cough*). But then how would I decide which ones to read? And then, a solution: why not judge them like any other book?

There are a few things that I usually take into consideration when deciding whether or not to read a book, and they all apply to classics:
  • The blurb. This is probably the most important part. If a blurb catches my interest, I'm going to want to read the book and find out more.
  • The author. From Jane Austen to Sarah Dessen: if I like one book by an author, I'm probably going to want to read more.
  • The hype: Classics do have a bit of an unfair advantage in this category, since they've had decades longer to build up the hype, but if lots of people I know and trust are giving any book, classic or otherwise, good reviews, I'm a lot more likely to pick it up.
I'm personally quite happy with my current method of picking classics, and while it has reduced the number on my list, I still have quite a few to go. I'll probably make a post soon about classics that I want to read.
    There is no right or wrong reason to read classics, only reasons that are right or wrong for individual people. Reading classics for the sake of reading classics was wrong for me. But now, I've found a way that works.

    Why do you read classics? What are some of your favorites? Have you ever made your reading plans to fit a book list? Tell me in the comments!


    1. Those three reasons you listed definitely cover all the reasons I read classics lol. With rare exception, they just don't interest me, and I never seem to like them. I don't relate to the characters or feel like I'm in their heads or get filled with emotion. And that's what I like in books, characters and emotion. BUT I like reading originals before reading retellings, and so that's why I've read Dr. Jekyll and Alice in Wonderland this year and plan to read certain others.

      I think Dorian Gray was the only classic I ever read completely of my own volition for no reason other than it sounded interesting. And I loved it when I first read it in high school. So that's one of those exceptions. And I plan to read Dracula this month because I love vampires books and just really want to see what the classic, original vampire book is like lol. But yeah, I'm just generally not a big classics person, and I'm ok with that.

      1. Classics are definitely written very differently from more recent books, and I've had that issue with characters and emotion in certain classics.

        I read Dorian Gray a few years ago! It took me a while to get into it, but I ended up really liking it.

    2. This is so interesting! I've never really thought about my reasons for wanting to read classics, but I think the first two reasons you listed would fit me. English was taught as a second language in my school, so I was never made to read classics, which is probably a good thing! As an English language learner though, I think reading classics for me is a linguistic goal - if I can read and understand a Jane Austen book, I'm doing well with English.

      I don't know if I have a favourite classic novel. I enjoy Jane Austen's stories, but I haven't read the actual books in forever!

      1. That's a really interesting perspective - I never really considered whether classics would be required for non-native English speakers! I'd have to agree that not being required to read classics is a pretty good thing, at least for people who read a lot of books already. And I get the linguistic goal part, too - Jane Austen can STILL be hard for me to read, and English is my first language! I can't even imagine reading classics in other languages I've learned.

    3. I always had vague ideas I'd read a lot of classics someday...but really? I always hated reading them in school.😂 I totally agree that they're ingrained in our culture! And I mean, if anyone says "Treasure Island"...it's a book immediately everyone recognises! (Which is why I think so many new books reference classics, because they want people to recognise them!) So I do think classics are important and I admire people who love them and want to read them. But they're basically not for me hahha. Unless it's a children's classic, and then I can handle that. ;) Like Alice in Wonderland, or the Five Children and It, or something. I grew up reading those and looooved them.

      1. I totally agree about hating to read classics in school! Of course, there are exception to that - Macbeth comes to mind - but usually, I REALLY didn't like the books I had to read. And I love children's classics, too! Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorites, and I also LOVE The Secret Garden.