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,
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.