Pride and Prejudice, Heart of Darkness, The Odyssey, Anna Karenina… whether or not you’ve ever read these books, you’re likely able to identify them as literary classics. Although the precise qualities which define a classic novel are difficult to pinpoint, there seems to be a firm societal consensus about which books hold this title and which do not. For example, Persuasion by Jane Austen: a classic. Thaddeus of Warsaw by Jane Porter: not a classic. The immense importance that we ascribe to reading the classics is demonstrated by the fact that, on the popular literary site Goodreads, Austen’s work has been rated by 394,554 people while Porter’s has been rated by 23. Similar comparisons can be made throughout history; for example, the 1951 classic The Catcher in the Rye boasts 2,080,219 ratings while the 1952 novel The Houses in Between has 75.
What causes some books to remain venerated decades or centuries after their publication while others are effectively forgotten? It’s easy to argue that only the most brilliant books are remembered, but that stance doesn’t stand up to scrutiny: is it really possible that the few hundred books which compose the mainstream classic canon are the only brilliant works of literature published since civilization began? Furthermore, despite the massive discrepancy in the audience size for the two sets of books compared above, the average ratings awarded by their readers are very similar, suggesting that the two neglected books have many merits of their own. Clearly, a huge factor in the sustained popularity of classic novels is the fact that they are classics, since many people subscribe to the idea that reading classic novels is important even if they wouldn’t be interested in the same books stripped of their classic status. Let’s interrogate the pros and cons of that idea to answer the following question: should we make an effort to read classic novels, or should we just read the books that interest us?
Point: Many classic novels offer insight into universal aspects of the human condition. One of the most frequently-cited reasons to read the classics is that the themes of these books are timeless and universal; no matter when you read them, you’ll find that their lessons can be applied to the world around you and perhaps even to your personal life. It’s important to preserve the wisdom of the past, and reading the classics for yourself is the best way to absorb the author’s insights directly from the source. It’s certainly true that classic novels can shine a light on contemporary problems; we’re seeing this phenomenon in action right now with the sudden rise in popularity of recognized literary classics The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.
Counterpoint: The canon of classic literature is plagued by a troubling lack of diversity. Although many classic novels feature universal themes, it can be difficult for the majority of readers to see themselves in the authors or protagonists. Scrolling through a curated list of the best classic novels reveals a strong bias towards male and Caucasian writers; mentally cataloging the classics you’ve been instructed to read throughout high school or university will likely reveal a similar trend. (Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, such as Gabriel García Márquez with One Hundred Years of Solitude and Ralph Ellison with Invisible Man, but the overwhelming trend is undeniable.) The tendency to celebrate these classics over all other books stifles the voices of diverse authors and risks perpetuating the same troubling ideologies which led to the creation of such a one-sided canon in the first place.
Point: There are plenty of strategies that can help make dense novels more readable. I’ve often heard people remark that they want to read the classics, but they don’t have the patience to work their way through prose which is often dense or archaic. However, these barriers don’t have to keep you from exploring the classic canon. One approach which can make classic novel more readable is to consume the original text while following along in a format that communicates the same story in simpler terms, such as a graphic novel adaptation or a SparkNotes summary. This supplementary reading will help you understand the the plot, freeing you to explore the prose of the original without struggling to grasp important details. Another helpful technique is to listen to an audiobook during long walks or bus commutes; the process of working your way through a book becomes much easier when someone reads it to you with proper inflection and emotion. Finally, if motivation is your main concern, find a movie version or interesting modern adaptation to enjoy after you’re done reading; knowing that you’ll be able to appreciate this contemporary media on a deeper level should be an incentive to finish the book.
Counterpoint: It’s better to read something you want to read than to force your way through a book that bores you. The tendency to associate a reading habit with a list of dense classic novels can be the thing which causes people to give up on literature entirely, stating that they “don’t find books that interesting” or “aren’t much of a reader.” In reality, books can be anything–from a graphic novel memoir about a queer woman’s experience with mental illness to a chilling mystery with a wealthy teenage girl as its unreliable narrator. Although it may be possible to force your way through the classics, it’s doubtful that approach will be worth it if it’s likely to turn you off the fascinating and varied world of literature altogether.
Point: Familiarizing yourself with classics will make you a better student. If you’re at a stage in your education where you’re frequently called on to analyze novels–whether you’re a Literature major at university or a high school student in English class–being familiar with a range of classic novels is a major asset. In addition to the obvious benefit of being able to discuss these books with authority if they come up in class, every classic novel you read will help you understand the tropes, themes, and literary devices that define much of the literary canon. Additionally, allusions to classics are woven throughout ancient and modern works of literature, and this additional level of depth can be easy to miss if you’re not familiar with the source material.
Counterpoint: Reading of all kinds has academic benefits. Although the benefits discussed above apply chiefly to classic novels, the vast majority of the advantages associated with reading apply no matter what you choose to read. When it comes to building your vocabulary, improving your critical thinking skills, and expanding your knowledge about the world, a ‘beach read’ like Eat, Pray, Love might be just as valuable as a classic like Around the World in Eighty Days. Furthermore, if reading contemporary novels makes you a more enthusiastic reader and increases the amount of books you read overall, the benefits are likely to be greater than they would be if you slogged your way through a classic every few months.
In the end, the question “should I read classic novels?” has no one right answer. There are both advantages and disadvantages to the practice, and what’s best for you depends largely on your habits and preferences. However, when we ask whether we should read the classics or not, we may be missing the point to some degree. Perhaps, instead of deciding whether to explore a predetermined selection of a few hundred ‘essential classics,’ we should expand the definition of a classic to reflect the true richness and diversity of our literary landscape.