Why are Certain Books Considered “Classics,” and Why Should We Read Them All These Years Later?
I used to always wonder (and sometimes still do…) who determined which works of literature would be studied, heralded as works of genius, and revered for what seems like will be the rest of time? I mean, let’s face it, some of these books are hard to decipher. People just talked differently in the 1800s, am I right??
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources for those of us who need extra help understanding the context and vocabulary of these novels. But really, are these old books written by long-dead authors even relevant to today’s reader in any way, shape, or form?
What are Some of the “Classics” and Are Why are They Still Assigned in School?
¶ Lord of the Flies (Published 1954)
¶ The Call of the Wild (Published 1903)
¶ Treasure Island (Published 1882)
¶ To Kill a Mockingbird (Published 1960)
¶ Animal Farm (Published 1945)
¶ Of Mice and Men (Published 1937)
¶ The Sun Also Rises (Published 1926)
¶ The Bell Jar (Published 1963)¶ The Scarlet Letter (Published 1850)
¶ The Catcher in the Rye (Published 1951)
¶ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (Published 1876)
¶ The Great Gatsby (Published 1925)
¶ Frankenstein (Published 1823)
¶ Dracula (Published 1897)
¶ Moby Dick (Published 1851)
¶ The Old Man and the Sea (Published 1952)
¶ Pride and Prejudice (Published 1813)
The above list is just a sampling, of course. As you can see, these books are all from decades ago, many of them well over 150 years old! Frankenstein is nearly 200 years old, yet it is assigned in almost every high school across America today. Why is that? Well for one reason, the English language, as well as politics, social norms, marriage, race relations, and gender expectations have dramatically changed over the years. How would we understand how far we’ve come if we didn’t go back to the beginning? Another reason is that it expands vocabulary, makes for stronger readers, and explores things like fashion, inventions, pop culture of the day, and a closer look at what that time in history meant to the world we live in today. Finally, all of the “classics” have themes that still resonate today: empathy, betrayal, love, forgiveness, friendship, money, death, and family. Regardless of how much time has passed since these books were published, there seems to always be common themes that people today can easily relate to and find relevant.
So What Makes These Books “Classics?”
You could ask 100 avid readers, and they’d all answer this question somewhat differently. Some of them might even argue whether the books on the list of classics are even any good. But, painting with a broad brush, I like to define classics as books that have stood the test of time 50, 100, or even 150+ years after their publication. Now that said, they also need a readership. I have no doubt there are terrible books written that long ago that no one would choose to revisit.
What Can We Learn Today from These Really, Really Old Novels?
1. The art of the English language. People did talk much differently a hundred or more years ago. It’s fascinating (and challenging at times) to learn these words and phrases. Overall, it enriches our knowledge and is just plain interesting!
2. Escapism. In today’s age of social media, cell phones, selfies, YouTube, and everything in the world moving so quickly, it’s nice to escape into a different time in our history. Many of these books (maybe all of them), despite being fiction, give us a snapshot into the time period the book takes place. It’s a given that we’ll learn geography, history, social and societal norms of the day, and much more! A little time away from our devices would do us all some good!
3. You’ll become a better reader. Most of these books will force you to go slowly, pay attention, and learn to put things into context. You’ll not only learn new words (well…old words), but you’ll better understand syntax, vocabulary, and how to understand the references other books, articles, films, and poems reference these classics when you come across them in the future.
4. You’ll grasp a deeper understanding of socio political and socio emotional issues. Just as the world is experiencing turmoil, growing pains, triumphs, heartbreak, fear, unrest, and social injustice today, it always has been. Therefore, when you take the time to read a book from 50, 80, 160 years ago, you’ll have the joy (and maybe shock) of discovering how people interacted socially, politically, and interpersonally back then.
5. Inspiration. Whether you read something that inspires you to be a better person, see life from a fresh point of view, or get a creative spark and write your own work of literary genius, the experience you’ll receive from delving into these books which have stood the test of time and criticism, will be invaluable.
There is still plenty of time left this summer to take in a couple of the classics and expand your intelligence, empathy, knowledge of history, and understanding of what some of America’s best writers had to say in their heyday.
Plus, let’s face it, it feels kind of like bragging rights when the conversation of a great classic novel comes up in conversation and we can say, “Yeah, I read that,” and actually mean it!