In my last post I talked about why people of all ages should be reading YA, and touched on book snobbery, where certain supposedly ‘high-brow’ readers seem to think that reading genre or YA fiction doesn’t count as ‘real reading’. This is of course, absolute nonsense! However in this post I wanted to talk about how things can also go the other way with some people automatically regarding older works of fiction and the classics as ‘boring’.
Now don’t get me wrong: some of the classics are boring in my opinion, just the same as some fantasy books are boring and some YA books are boring. But there are also some absolutely amazing works of fiction out there that people are often wary of approaching, either thanks to the education system making them seem boring (I would probably have enjoyed Of Mice and Men had I not been forced to analyse every single sentence ten times for GCSE English!), or because people assume that just because a book is old it must be hopelessly dull.
So here are five reasons why you should read the classics (and they’re all much, much better reasons than to ‘look smart’ or ‘appear well-read’!):
- Through it we can learn a lot about times gone by from people who were actually there.
In my post on historical fiction, I said that one of the reasons you should read it is that you can learn a lot about history. However, in a lot of ways, it’s the classics that can truly tell us about the past because they show a reflection of how society was from the perspective of a writer who was actually there and a part of that society. For example, we can get pretty interesting insights into what Victorian society was actually like through the works of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen’s books can tell us a lot about 18th Century courtship and The Great Gatsby can tell us a lot about 1920s New York.
Even classic works of science fiction that are set far in the future can tell us a lot about the society in which they were written through the themes and anxieties you can see within them.
- We can trace the way different genres and literature, in general, has developed over the years.
All today’s’ genres from crime to science fiction, to fantasy, can be traced back to much earlier works, and it can be really interesting to look back and see how genres have changed and developed according to the times. For example, modern detective fiction can be traced back to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, and I find it fascinating to think about how Sherlock’s method of crime-solving – deductions and theorising – has gradually been replaced with forensics and technology in crime fiction, as these things have developed and advanced in the real world.
Similarly, if you look at the boom in vampire fiction a few years ago, it can be interesting to look back at its origins and earlier manifestations with the likes of Dracula by Bram Stoker, Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu and The Vampyre by John Polidori. It’s especially interesting when you try and work out how a repulsive character like Dracula somehow became a sparkly romantic hero in the 21st Century!
- To experience fantastic, timeless writing and riveting stories.
Classics have become classics for a reason, and generally, the books that stand the test of time are those that are examples of beautiful or unusual writing and that have timeless stories that we can still relate to today. For example, no one can deny the beauty of Shakespeare’s verses, and the way in which his plays are still being reinvented and adapted even hundreds of years later shows how relevant his plots still are!
- To meet iconic characters
Classic literature is full of characters who are now iconic and are even known by those who have never read the source text. Oliver Twist is a prime example, as are Romeo and Juliet, Cathy and Heathcliff, Jay Gatsby, Jekyll and Hyde, Count Dracula and Victor Frankenstein (although somehow the name of Victor Frankenstein the scientist seems to have been appropriated by Frankenstein’s creature in popular culture!). I think it can be really interesting going into a classic with a preconceived notion of a character you have known of for so long and seeing where they have come from, and finding out what exactly has made the stick out so much in the canon of literature.
- We can see how people haven’t ever really changed.
Essentially I think classic literature reminds us that despite advances in technology and changes in society, humans never really change. Classic literature is full of people searching for love and acceptance and looking to find their own path in this world, and that is still just the same today (except with more iPhones and social media and TV boxsets!).
So do you read many classics? What are your favourites and why do you think they’re still worth reading today?