Why I Read... Classics (part 1)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

In my mind, there are two denominations of a classic - the typical, traditional classic and the "modern classic." While I don't entirely agree with the term "modern classic" (to me, the term classic indicates the passage of some amount of time and the ability of a work to stand up to that passage of time), it is a genre that I enjoy, so for lack of a better term, I will continue to use it to classify that group of books.

However, for today, I would like to focus on, um, unmodern classics. Which for the purpose of this post, is defined as an old book (before 20th century) that has literary and aesthetic meaning and merit. 

Classics have almost always been a part of my literary diet. Hand in hand with my love of historical fiction, I grew up enjoying "old-fashioned" things. Even more old-fashioned than the stories written about the era after the fact are the stories written right in the thick of things. In elementary school I devoured every volume of the Great Illustrated Classics series that I could get my little hands on. I have no idea if this series is still in print, and unfortunately most of those books that I owned disappeared in a garage sale years ago, but I am definitely hoping that I have access to them once my children are at an age when they are an appropriate reading level. Those books introduced me to the classics and gave me a familiarity with the stories that allowed me to enjoy them later when the language got harder. (I also have to put in a little plug for Wishbone, which gave me that familiarity even earlier than the Great Illustrated Classics). 

My love of the classics in their unabridged form was ongoing throughout high school, interspersed with fantasy and sci fi, but it was intensified my senior year in AP English. Each semester, we were required to choose a classic and do a huge project on it, involving about 20 small 2 page papers and projects. The last two weeks of the semester, we all presented on our projects, aiming to give a familiarity with the canon to everyone in preparation for our AP lit test. I was lucky enough to have two very excellent books suggested to me (The Count of Monte Cristo and East of Eden) and discovered several more in the process of the presentation. Up until the last year or two, my reading was almost exclusively classics from that point. 

Anyway, I'm pontificating overmuch in this introduction. I guess to sum up, if you are even still reading, the classics are a huge part of my life. I love them.

Why I Read Classics

* Timelessness. The reason these stories have lasted is because they tell a story that appeals to many people, or explore a theme that is important across large groups of humanity. These aren't for specialized audiences - these are stories that have touched thousands and millions of people.
* Rich writing. This isn't present in every classic - sometimes the writing is thick rather than rich (now I feel like I'm talking about Yoplait). However, in general classics have beautiful, well-crafted, and sensorily appealing sentences.
* Complexity. Once again, not always the case, but many of the classics I love have many things going on, unfolding slowly over time. Love it. 
* The prestige factor. Mostly kidding. But it does lend a certain sense of pride to have finished some of the more difficult tomes. 


* Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte - I love the Brontes. Haven't gotten acquainted with Anne yet, but I think that will also be a good experience. These Victorian slightly creepy romances are excellent autumn or winter reads and tell love stories that aren't as simple as love-at-first-sight-then-happily-ever-after. 
* Anne of Green Gables and just about everything else (excepting Jane of Lantern Hill, which I did not like) by L.M. Montgomery. These classics tell simpler stories, but I've never been able to get enough of them. They describe good, simple lives with romance, family, and personal development.
* The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Despite the 80-odd pages of history on the Napoleonic wars, this book has a powerful narrative with many intertwining plot lines. If the huge volume intimidates you, read the abridged version. It's better than nothing!
* Middlemarch by George Eliot. This isn't an easy book, but I was swept up by it. Give it a chance and skim the sections on local politics. 

For further recommendations, visit...

Dead White Guys. If you like your classics with a serving of snark, this will be your new home. 
Rebecca Reads.  Thoughtful reviews with a lot of depth. She also runs the Classics Circuit, another great resource for learning about classics in concentrated areas. 
A Room of One's Own - Jillian is one of the most passionate readers I know through the blogiverse. She is dedicatedly becoming well-read, tackling many challenging texts but also many children's classics. 
A Literary Odyssey - Allie is working through a 250-book long list of classics. She works through many of the classics that absolutely intimidate me (namely: the Greeks). Her reviews are personable and informative. 


  1. I am so with you on the classics. I'm a bit of a book snob (surprised?), and for a long time I refused to read any fiction that had been written recently. I thought they were all trash comparatively. (They aren't all, of course, though there is a bunch of trash published now.)

    But for real. There's a reason they are considered classics. I will never get tired of reading East of Eden. Ever.

  2. I love your mention of the Great Illustrated Classics - I'd forgotten about those. There was another similar series that did the classics for even younger readers, wish I could remember what it was called...clearly, my parents started me young on the classics. ;)

    I haven't always been a fan of the classics, but I've come back in the past year or so. I'm glad I have, because as you write there's a certain timelessness to some of these books; and I love that the language and writing styles can be so different than more recent novels. "Discovering" Edith Wharton last year was one of my best moments as a reader. I'm looking forward to reading your next post on the classics.

    -- Ellen

  3. I definitely appreciate this post. I was an English Major with a concentration in 18th/19th century British and American Lit. And for a long time I was a total book snob. I've since allowed myself to not only read books from the 20th-Century, but even more current than that! And from the New York Times Bestseller List. I now realize that if I enjoy it, that's okay. It doesn't have to have literary value to be worthy of my reading time. I do find, however, that after several light reads, I tend to go back to Classics for a book with real depth that just can't be satisfied through any other means. Look forward to reading Part II.

    If you ever want to work together to highlight Classics, let me know.

  4. Aw, thank you for the kind words, Lorren. :-) I love this post and agree with so many of your points. The classics are just quality, magical, like time traveling. They pair well with my love of history.

    I have tried Anne Bronte, by the way, and highly recommend her. I still need to read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Can't wait. :-)

  5. @Allison - Haha, my grandma totally texted me today to tell me that she couldn't put East of Eden down. We are watching the James Dean movie together when I go visit her! Have you seen it? There are quite a few differences (worst one: Lee isn't in it). However, despite that it still makes a decent movie and has my favorite kiss scene of all time. Scott actually told me once he would want to name one of our daughters Abra just because she is such an awesome character, event though he doesn't like the character. Okay, deep breath, basically, I'm saying I agree with you. Haha.

    @Ellen - Edith Wharton will definitely be playing a huge role in that post. She is easily one of my favorite authors. Lately I've been thinking I need to return to the classics. There are so many YA blogs that it is easy to get caught up in all the recommendations. And there are plenty of fantastic YA books. But I've been wanting something a bit meatier lately.

    @Dawn - I know what you mean. I didn't study English in school, but I only read classics for quite a while. Now I read almost everything, but I think classics will always be my favorite. I would love to work together on something! I don't have any ideas in particular in mind, but if you are thinking of something let me know (and I'll do the same if I get an idea!)

    @Jillian - I think I am learning to love history more and more from the classics. I've heard Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the better of Anne Bronte's books - I can't decide if I want to read it first or save it for last. I'm excited to see what you think of it!

  6. The best thing about blogging is that I am now reading more classics. I just finished Charlotte Bronte's Villette and it had a massive impact on me.

    I've been putting off The Count of Monte Cristo - maybe I should give it a go?

  7. Oh how I love this! Every single word.

    Especially the part about the illustrated classics. (See, my life has come pretty much back to them, full circle! I read them...now I'm about to read them to my children. I'll hopefully read some of them out loud to them. I LOVE that.)


  8. Sam - I haven't read Villette yet! It's good to hear that it is a good read - I'll have to make sure and read it. The Count of Monte Cristo is really a powerful story. It does get a little dense because it goes through a lot of history at one point... like 100 pages... so if that turns you off I'd read the abridged.

    Asheley - Yay! I'm glad you like it. I need to start scouring the bargain stores for copies so that in a few years when I have kids I can read to them. I loved those books so much!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...