In high school English classes, the students groan when they here they are assigned reading that is old-school. Shakespeare, Dickens, and many others are at the bottom of most people’s reading lists. Books like Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight are all the rage. But why aren’t people still interested in the classics? Why don’t they get excited to read them like they do when the latest bestseller is announced? My guess would be that people dislike classics for two reasons: the language used and the fact that they are set in old time periods. I will agree that, yes, the language of Shakespeare is a little difficult. However, reading plays like Othello and The Tempest will definitely prove worthwhile when you see some of the reasons classics are still important to read and relevant to today’s culture just as much as now.
1. Challenging Language Challenges the Brain
So, again I repeat, yes, the language can be difficult. But did you ever think that it could make you smarter? Reading these classic novels expands your vocabulary which in turn can actually increase your intelligence (see blog post “Why Should You Read?” for more information on this). Also, there is research to suggest that reading classics extends your brain about as much as solving a moderately difficult math problem. For those who hate math, pick up a classic instead so that you can use the same amount of brain power with way less stress!
2. Classics Provide Historical Context and Culture
While reading a history book spouting facts sounds insanely enticing, a literary classic will give you context with an awesome story to boot. Let’s take a quick look at Dickens with Great Expectations (the novel I actually did my senior seminar project on for my undergraduate degree). Dickens is demonstrating the clear class divide in England with Pip being a commoner destined to be a blacksmith and the beautiful Estella who is upper class and cold. Estella repeatedly mocks Pip for his common ways when both of them are children that Pip aspires to become a gentleman of the upper-class. He finds that being upper-class isn’t all it’s cracked up to be once he gets a mysterious benefactor that allows his dreams of money to be a reality. As readers of classics, we can see what was going on in the time of England during the 1860’s when Dickens wrote the novel. Let’s not shy away from the fact that some of this is still relevant today. Ever heard of the American Dream where anyone can be anything if they put their mind to it? Well, Pip puts his mind to it and tries so hard to become someone he is not that he almost ruins friendships along the way. I’m smelling a good moral lesson here.
3. The Classics Art Art
Whether you were a groaning student or an excited one (like I was) when classics were assigned, they are still art. Novels and poetry may not be scribbled with colors and beautiful shapes, but they are enriching in a different sort of way. Art inspires emotion and, if you’re really engaging in literature, it also engages your emotions. Allowing yourself to really open up to a great novel or even a poem will give you a sense of appreciation for that writer and, hopefully, a new appreciation within yourself. Art is about discovery and adventures within the soul. If you’re actively engaging with the art that’s right in front of you, you will feel some type of way whether that’s anger, sympathy, or happiness. Now, I’m not saying that every book is going to give you the willies, but that’s were the discovery part comes in. Try a classic out. If you don’t resonate with it, try a different one. Regardless, you still learned a bit of the history even if you didn’t feel emotional with it. You learn what you like and don’t like.
With all of this being said, I need to address that classics, to me, aren’t just the authors I talked about above. There are a wide array of classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (pictured below with my awesome new typewriter) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Classics aren’t just the old white guys from hundreds of years ago. The idea of what constitutes as a classic is something that I think about often as an English major. In fact, I was just discussing with some of book nerd buddies what the future classics will be. I’m sure Harry Potter will make the cut because of the insane phenomenon surrounding it. This type of thinking begs the question of what modern novels really capture our culture and history as 21st century-ians. So, while you’re reading the classics that are already considered classics (seriously, just a Google “list of literary classics” and you have a ton to choose from), you can ponder what modern novel represents you!