Reading Classics: Boring or Beneficial?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I recently came across an article on Publishers Weekly "10 Classics You Read in High School You Should Reread."

It contained books like: The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Age of Innocence, To Kill a Mockingbird, Fahrenheit 451, The Stranger, The Metamorphosis, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, The Crying of Lot 49, Animal Farm.

As I browsed through the list, I had to duck my head in shame. I honestly couldn't remember reading any of those books. The only one I think I might have read was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (maybe in junior high).

As I read the article I was faced with the question: How could I reread them if I'd never read them in the first place?

Of course I read a few classics in high school and college as required reading. But I don't remember the names of many, and I certainly don't remember enjoying them when I was forced to read them.

As an adult, I've delved into reading children's classics with my kids. We've read older books like Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood. And we've also read more modern classics like Little House on the Prairie, Stuart Little, and Homer Price. I've even managed to bring in some Shakespeare.

But the question I come back to over and over is whether reading classics is truly beneficial—or more beneficial— than reading contemporary fiction. Are classics really better? Or are they just different?

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I'm listening to the audio unabridged version of Jane Eyre. I admit. I've never read the book before. Sure I've seen the movie. So I know what happens. But I'd never made the time to read it until I downloaded the audio book.

Have I benefited from reading Jane Eyre as opposed to Twilight (which I recently "read" via audio book too)? Did the book written in the 1800's make me a better writer, better person, more well-rounded, or smarter—more so than a modern vampire tale? In other words, did Jane Eyre have some intrinsic value that Twilight doesn't have simply because it's a classic?

I analyzed both books, which is always helpful (especially to writers). And as I evaluated them, I realized neither are written with what I would consider "great" writing.

The first third of Jane Eyre during her childhood moved much too slowly. Bronte often overwrote her descriptions (which is common in the pre-TV era). And the plot was somewhat unbelievable, particularly because I expected that an intelligent woman like Jane would figure out the mystery of Rochester's insane wife sooner.

On the other hand, I could mirror some of the same complaints about Twilight. It, too, moved slowly in the beginning. Meyers overwrote some of her descriptions (particularly regarding Edward's beauty). And the plot wrapped up too neatly at the end.

Neither were a masterpieces, but both were intriguing. And I believe that's what's made them popular.

Let me return to my original question: Is Jane Eyre better simply because it's a classic?

I'm sure many people would say so. But just because a book was written 100 to 200 years ago, does that somehow make it worthier than modern books? It was written during an age when there was a miniscule fraction of authors compared today. It's no wonder that the books were well-read and popular during their time. There weren't many other choices.

If Bronte had written Jane Eyre in today's industry, I doubt she would have found a publisher. Even if a publisher decided to take a chance on her story, there wouldn't be many readers who would patiently wade through the pages of backstory and description (as we do because it's labeled as a classic). The publisher likely would have sent the modern Bronte back to the drawing board and had her cut about half the words from the book.

Don't misunderstand me. I DO think there are benefits to reading the classics. They often require us to slow down our fast modern pace, challenge us to think about different eras, and force us to grapple with timeless issues.

Many of them are wonderful stories with impactful messages or themes.

But often I think there's a bit of prestige or pride people like to toss around regarding classics, as if reading them makes us smarter or better educated. When in reality, there are equally as many contemporaries that have excellent stories with incredible messages that can force us to think just as deeply.

I'd love to know your thoughts on the issue. Do you think classics are beneficial? If so, what are the unique benefits that readers can't get from other books? And if you don't like classics, why not?


  1. I think reading the classics may be beneficial just because of that point you made with overwriting and backstory: so that we can see how storytelling evolves with time and circumstances, and that things that are touted as absolute commandments of good writing merely reflect a trend — granted, a trend that might last forty or fifty years, but still a trend that will change.
    On the other hand, it might also be good to read stories that are not 'classics' but that are from authors who had their day and have been forgotten. You might be surprised into discovering underrated gems and page-turners.

  2. It was the title of your post that caught my eye this morning, just after I awoke from a night of undisturbed sleep--something very uncommon once a woman enters menopause!

    Are the classics beneficial? Does one really need to ask? When I was a girl of 13 in the very late 1960s, my reading diet consisted of Nancy Drew novels and Harlequin Romances. That summer, while staying at a cottage in Muskoka, Ontario, rainy days kept us indoors. I had read the few books I'd brought with me and soon tired of playing scrabble and charades. The cottage was old and had stuffed animals with glass eyes on the wood paneled walls, left there by Canadian wildlife artist, Robert Bateman, who was a friend of the family we were staying with. There was no indoor plumbing and we shared the cottage with a family of very bold mice.

    When I expressed to the adults that I was bored, my mother directed me towards one of two bookshelves that contained dusty black leather tomes. My first 'real book' was Jane Eyre. I was mesmerized and fell in love with Rochester. Bronte's words took me on a journey that awakened my youthful desires.

    How could I go back back to 'light reading' when my heart and brain had been so stimulated by a master author? During the next few years I read as many classics that I could find in the library and attics of friends and family. When I became interested in darker Gothic, I consumed Dracula and Frankenstein and later, Poe's macabre tales. I reread The Great Gatsby and other classics every year to remind me that books are still the best form of entertainment.

    You may be right that Charlotte Bronte might not have found a publisher in today's market, but that is only because the classics have become lost in to a generation of readers who prefer to find stimulation from television and computers. Their loss.

  3. I find benefit in all reading, but one of the things I appreciate about the classics is seeing how society and thought processes have changed or stayed the same. It's very insightful to me because whether we acknowledge it or not, the collective past shapes who we are. So I enjoy reading Dicken's commentary on the legal system in Bleak House. And the effects of adultery in Anna Karenina. I see from Jane Austen that relations between men and women were always complicated. The same with the Bronte sisters' books. I love the large themes of sacrifice in Les Miserables and A Tale of Two Cities. All of those things are gleaned from a good story with great characters written from a different understanding of the world than is generally prevelant today. (Not necessarily in Christian fiction, but overall.) The bonus is finding some very interesting glimpses into the future, such as in Fahrenheit 451, which I read for the first time a few years ago. This book was written decades ago but describes a future society mesmerized by screens, putting earbuds in their ears, and devaluing reading. Huh. There you go.

  4. I would argue that the classics because they embody universal themes about the human condition. The Bronte sisters could well be described as pioneers in Gothic romance as much as Jane Austen could be described the best romantic novelist of her day. Mr. Darcy is the archetype of many of today's modern heroes in romance novels. All of these authors also included themes that were important to women in their day. If today's authors are doing that, speaking to us about things that matter to us a people, as a society, then they are just as great as many of these classic authors. So I do believe the classics are beneficial, but I also believe we need to read more than just the classics. If never read the "trash" how can we ever find out if it will speak to us?

  5. I don't know that classics are necessarily better than modern books but I think the point is to open yourself up to new experiences, read something that isn't necessarily your favorite genre, broaden your horizons.

    I'm currently reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" for the first time. I would recommend it, not because the writing it outstanding but because of, like you said, the "timeless issues." It's a great way to open up discussion, get people thinking.

  6. Confession: I love description and backstory. I miss them in this post-TV era. Do you think we'll ever find a happy medium between today's bare bones approach and the florid prose of the past

    1. Yes, Jane, I agree. There have been a few wonderful novels published during the past few years that embody some of the 'florid prose' that is lacking in current books. I have read and highly recommend, 'The Woman at the Light' by Johanna Brady, 'Juliet' by Anne Fortier, 'Island Beneath the Sea' by Isabel Allende to name a few. They are literary novels with flowing prose, enticing characters and exotic settings.

    2. I recently read 'The Woman at the Light'. Since my WIP is set in 19th century Key West, I've dialogued with Johanna about her book. She's a lovely woman. I was hoping to meet her when I was in Key West for my research trip last month, but she was out of town.

  7. I do think that reading classics is beneficial, Jody, for all the reasons you gave and more. My greatest joy in reading Bronte and Austin is in their masterful use of language. It is sheer delight to see how their characters express themselves in words that exactly capture not only the meaning, but the spirit and attitude behind the words. Many of the classic writers were wordshmiths...master craftsmen in building a beautiful story with language. Sadly, we are becoming a society whose vocabulary has been severely truncated as technology reduces us to abbreviations. That, combined with the frenetic pace most of us keep, shortens our communication down to the mere essentials. So relaxing with a classic is like treating ourselves to a much-needed linguistic retreat!

    Great post...thanks for sharing it! ~ Betsy

  8. There is so much to learn and enjoy from books written outside out time. Sure pacing and style will be different, but I don't believe that makes books that have stuck around less worthy. I'm also not sure if they should be viewed with the "this couldn't have published now" mindset.

    It's a bit like thinking life just started with our generation. Does this make sense?

    I re-read Fahrenheit 451 maybe 5 years ago. I remember being so struck with it in 8th grade. I felt it's just as powerful today, reading again this message about the power of language and ideas. I highly recommend it!

  9. That should read outside "our" time.

  10. Sorry to be hogging the comments here, but I also re-read Jane Eyre last year. I was struck by a number of things: language (I loved the use of "unclosed" instead of open), the strength of this young woman who in her era truly had few choices, the intellectually level playing field between Jane and Mr. Rochester.

    Of course, there were things that bothered me with my modern mindset: that Byronic heroes are alluring is rather disturbing -- they are not always kind. The treatment of Mrs. Rochester is curious: I wonder about her story and treatment. In fact, a friend published a book last year, A Breath of Eyre, that is more sympathetic to her, which is an interesting approach. The near-end section, when Jane leaves -- that's a bit neat and tidy, isn't it?

    And yet. I was engaged. I kept thinking. The characters were fully developed (apart from Mrs. R) and interesting.

    I guess I'm saying there's a rich literary history and tradition that is ours as novelists. I think it wise to be, in the least, familiar with what and who came before.

    I'll be quiet now. :)

  11. I have to admit that: (1) I agree with all of the above regarding the classics and(2) I was afraid that most of your readers would comment that reading the classics was overrated and I am genuinely thrilled to see that that is not the case. :-) {Happy Dance}

  12. I find there's a big difference between classics and old books. I've read most of the Bronte sisters' works, and some I couldn't get through, some I finished and promptly forgot about, and then some, like Jane Eyre, have stayed with me my entire life.

    What makes a book a classic is its enduring and timeless quality, the story of humanity that remains the same regardless of how the trappings of civilization change. As readers, we can still resonate with Jane's courage and struggle despite the fact that we none of us live in a Gothic world. There's a reason Pride & Prejudice is more universally beloved than Mansfield Park - many of Fanny's virtues, flaws, and struggles don't translate well to a modern world (though I will argue fiercely against anyone who calls her a drip!), while we can all recognize a piece of ourselves in either Lizzie, Jane, Darcy, Bingley, Charlotte, or even - heaven forbid - Mary or Mr Collins!

    So no, don't read an old book just because you think it gives you some sort of high marks in life. Read a true classic for the depth and insight into human character it gives!

  13. This is a timely question. My daughter is a freshman and so far, her English assignments have been To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, and, currently, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. I've been reading them aloud to her, and they've prompted some excellent, thought-provoking conversations. Before her exposure to the classics, she used to say she favored the YA love stories, but she's recently admitted a budding appreciation for "the old stuff." When I asked why she said b/c they're about issues that really matter. I agree, and I also wonder: what issues will really matter five generations from now? What stories will have staying power? I also think reading the classics is a more interesting way to learn about history. I just read Anna Karenina a few weeks ago, and I felt like I was getting a very real depiction of life in late 19th century Russia—something I never would've attempted to study through a textbook.

  14. A truly well-written story in any age or genre is going to find readers.

    From my point of view, the most compelling thing about the literature from the era of the classics is the underlying world view. The characters in most of those novels faced situations and hardships we can't begin to imagine and many of them, the heroic among them, faced those issues with a strength, sacrifice, and poise I find sorely lacking in modern culture.

    That is the real value of old literature to me.

  15. What a provocative question. :) I think the thing about classics is that they've proven staying power, even as the writing style has changed all around them. Something about those stories still calls to us, speaks to us.

    Also not to be understated is the simple understanding of cultural references. To take a NOT-classic, NOT-book example, everyone in the world has heard some variant on a deep voice saying "I am your father." But my kids, who first heard it via Buzz Lightyear, don't know the context of Darth Vader and epic space opera. It changes and deepens the understanding of the cultural reference to read (or in this case, "see") the original. There are lots of references in Huck Finn and in Tale of Two Cities, etc., that are in the culture, but we might not recognize them or the context unless we've read the original.

  16. This is such an interesting question, Jody. I agree that some speople like to say they read the classics in the same way they claim never to watch TV or movies...LOL. But here's why I think it's important to read world literature from all cultures and eras: the reason these books are classics is they have a certain universal depth and truth that crosses time and borders. Despite the often archaic language or writing style, there is a human story we are still experiencing. It's important to know these themes have never left us. Right now I'm reading War and Peace. This is my 3rd attempt, and now I think I'm finally "old enough" to get it. And why did I pick this up now? Because I absolutely adored the recent movie version of Anna Karenina. I wanted to know more about Russia, Tolstoy, and the world I live in. And I just love to read.

  17. Regardless of whether or not the Bronte sisters or Jane Austen would find publishers today is less important than the fact that they are competing with the vast array of available books, these and other classics are still read and studied. An apt analogy is a comparison of today's music with tunes that have sustained the test of time. The classics open a window to another time, but their universal message is the same. We might not be familiar with the era, but we are exposed to so much human emotion presented in such rich language, that we cannot help but improve our knowledge of history and vocabulary. The novels of Dickens, Hugo and Tolstoy paint vivid pictures of their eras that no history book can teach us.

  18. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE all of your comments today, everyone!!! I appreciate each of your thoughtful responses! You've all brought up so many great points! :-)

  19. I teach lit classes to college students, so one thing I'm required to do is teach the classics, as well. I think that there is more than one reason that the classics continue to be read, because there are themes in them that a lot of people can relate to: forbidden love, jealousy, greed, loss, inter-generational conflicts, etc. But I must admit that I would love to teach more books that I read "for fun", like chick lit and funny memoirs. I'm not sure how that would fly with the schools I teach at, though.

  20. Hi Jody,

    Great post!

    I like to think the classics were made classics for a reason. So many classic books are the foundation for our novels today. I heard recently that Pride and Prejudice is the basis for many romantic movies that we have in our current culture. It was the first modern romance novel and so many books I read have elements borrowed from this. The first time I read Jane Eyre I wished I had written it. Although there is excessive backstory and description, the plot is timeless. Hero’s like Mr. Darcy and Mr. Rochester are the basis for our modern hero’s and we owe those authors credit for being the first to create them. Recently, I read The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and was blown away by the depth of the writing and the introspection she used throughout the book. There are few novels today that come close to such depth and insight into the human condition. The development of her characters was pure genius. They were all very flawed, yet we sympathized with them for being almost victims of the time in which they lived. I guess while classic novels may not meet the current qualifications for publication today, we might want to ask ourselves if this is a good thing or not. Have we become so fast paced and short attention spanned that we can’t take in things of quality and depth that make us into human beings with introspection? Books that cause us to consider and examine truths that are as relevant today as they were 100 years ago? I guess that’s a quality that we as writers can strive to imitate while still maintaining the rhythm and flow that today’s readers demand.

  21. I have to admit, I haven't read many of the classics either. I've tried. But I find many of them taxing. I think there are certainly benefits from 'universal themes' and 'seeing where we've come from' and 'beautiful insights' ... but if they are buried in a vernacular that is dated, and therefore largely inaccessible to most readers, I'm not sure how beneficial they are.

    Don't get me wrong, there are MANY benefits to the critical analysis that takes place in AP High School English courses, and college lit courses. But if it takes extensive analysis and a trained critical eye to discern what the author is really saying, I think we've missed one of the key points of literature: the story.

    One of my favorite quotes is "Books fall open, you fall in."

    If our readers can't "fall into" our stories, if they have to squint and translate and pick apart and sit back and dissect and re-think ... frankly, there are a lot of people we're not going to reach with our writing. Especially in YA.

    We're writers. We can do this. This is our job. We don't have to dumb things down for our readers, but we can take those classic themes and insights and de-convolutize them. Make them fresh and new and utterly unputdownable.

  22. "... as if reading them makes us smarter or better educated."

    For one, the number of words that I needed to look up from my recent read of Pride and Prejudice (such as panegyric, arrear, inure, obeisance, diminution, ablution, eclat, etc.) DID make me better educated. For what is the learning of a new word(s) but education?

  23. Below is the freshman English syllabus from my daughter's Ivy League university. I guess Columbia University thinks the classics are beneficial:

    Homer, Iliad
    Homer, Odyssey
    Aeschylus, Oresteia
    Sophocles, Oedipus the King
    Euripides, Medea
    Herodotus, The Histories
    Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War
    Aristophanes, Lysistrata
    Plato, Symposium
    Book of Genesis
    Book of Job
    Gospel According to Luke
    Gospel According to John
    Virgil, Aeneid
    Ovid, Metamorphoses
    Augustine, Confessions
    Dante, Inferno
    Montaigne, Essays
    Shakespeare, King Lear
    Cervantes, Don Quixote
    Goethe, Faust
    Austen, Pride and Prejudice
    Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
    Woolf, To the Lighthouse

    1. Wow! That's quite the list!

    2. That was her freshman syllabus. You should see her sophomore syllabus! It begins with Plato's "Republic" and Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" and "Politics" and ends with Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Gandhi.

      Her syllabi have inspired me. I've read the entire freshman syllabus up to "Crime and Punishment" since last September plus several other plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

      I admit to being a little over the top with classic literature and purely a classicist at heart, but these readings have given me some remarkable idols: Odysseus and Don Quixote. :)

  24. I recently read OF HUMAN BONDAGE and had to force myself to finish it. After reading it, I realized what was wrong with my own writing and why I was getting so many rejection letters. Like you pointed out with JANE EYRE, there are long passages of the novel devoted to descriptions of everything, but not really moving the plot forward. Maybe it is because of movies and television, but readers today are really looking for interesting characters they can relate to doing extraordinary things. If anything, reading the classics helps me become a better writer by analyzing what NOT to do.

  25. Hey Jody,
    I was over here at your blog looking for your agent's link to read a blog post she wrote about writing titles for non fiction books and I saw this post. The non fiction book about how to share a classical literature club with your kids is coming out this year and I am so excited.
    Anyway, I thought I would chime in here with what I tell my parents and kids. I think both are beneficial. In classic and modern fiction we get a story and isn't that why we read? Both lend to us themes in which we can experience the human condition in a beneficial way. The classics can be difficult to read and so we avoid them. It usually takes me four chapters to get into the story whereas our modern stories plunge us into the action in the first chapter and maybe even the first page. Many classics are written in passive voice. It takes practice to overcome the switch our brain has to make in order to enjoy them since our modern day books are written in active voice. And if you're reading a classic written around the late 1700s they are LONG. The authors were paid by the word and it shows. These things make the classics less desirable. So, why should we read them if they aren't any better than modern fiction? They are good stories rich with humanness. The stories have depth. They touch our hearts and change us — not unlike modern fiction.

  26. I was just talking to a friend about how much MORE we appreciate classics as married adults. At this point, we've seen those character traits/issues echoed in real life, and it's that much more poignant. I would hate my life without classics, honestly. And yet I do read modern fiction, like TWILIGHT, as well. I can't say I miss those three-paragraph descriptions of "the foggy moors" and that kind of thing that litters the classics, BUT I miss the depth of characterization you find there. Nowadays, we might know the MC's hair color and eye color, but know (and CARE!) nothing about their deeper psychological motivations. Then, we knew. EVEN if the author had to tell rather than show. I honestly miss that slow development of plot, as you got to know characters and began to care for them. To me, they seem much more alive than many of the cardboard characters that fill the predictable plot-lines today. AND I guess you can tell which way I'm biased.

    I actually regret that my high school didn't make us read more classics. I'm thankful that as a homeschooling mom, I can help my kids pick some more difficult books to read (such as ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS), while also bringing modern classics into the mix (like WAR HORSE).

    Fun topic today, Jody, and one dear to my heart. But you're right, we as writers can't write that way or we'd never get pubbed.

  27. Jody,

    I like reading classics for themselves but also for their reference value. When someone references Homer or Virgil, the meaning of what they said is amplified for me having read the original work.

    My children also get a big kick out of reading a more modern day book or poem that uses some reference to the Odyssey or the Aeneid. When the poet talks about someone being like Dido, they know what the poet means.

  28. I think there IS a benefit to reading the classics, but PART of it is understanding literature ethnographically. Writing style had changed for a lot of reasons. That immediate WW2 era with Orwell and Bradbury was even sparser language than we use now, but without the 'reality' feel we require. The 19th century meandered and let us get to know families before it really got to the stories. There are tons of things we can learn. And I don't think our 'dive straight in, no excess' version now is superior EITHER... just bound in our ADHD era. If we want to really appreciate literature, I think it's good to understand all of that. And if we'd hope to CHANGE anything, then it's absolutely critical to understand where we are and how to get there from here.

  29. I find it interesting that the novels you list at the beginning are almost all American (in authorship and/or setting) and almost all from the 20th century--some are even from the "post TV" era. IMO, the language in the ones I've read is fairly straightforward, and I found them easier to read and enjoy than I did than Jane Eyre.

    I think it's a bit ridiculous to imply that storytelling should NEVER change and to bemoan the current modes of storytelling. We're looking at books whose stories have endured decades and centuries--a small percentage of the books published during those times--and comparing them to the full gamut of what is published monthly today. Frankly, there have always been subpar writing and storytelling and novels. Still are. But there are also fantastic novels and writing being published. In the best examples, things like exposition and description are still there, but they're servants to the storytelling and the characters instead of something readers have to suffer through to find the story.

    I wonder if there's actually a different reader phenomenon going on. I highly doubt that every person who doesn't enjoy pages upon pages of description is stupid, attention deficient or illiterate. Perhaps, however, we've become accustomed to the "density" of modern storytelling, wherein we can only include the things that are significant to the characters and story. Then, when we read a text with a bit more latitude in this regard, we exhaust ourselves trying to catalog all these little "clues" for later significance, when really they aren't significant to the story as a whole (and perhaps not even particularly significant to the scene).

  30. With my memory, many of the classics I read in my younger years could be read again now and experienced as new books. I'm currently reading Pride and Prejudice 'again', and looking for the same things I look for in contemporary books. But I'm also trying to discern what gave the book its staying power. Just getting published isn't what made such books classics.

  31. This has been a topic of discussion in our home, especially since my 16-year-old is forced to read classics in honors english class. He hates them. I try to tell him that some day he'll be happy he read them, but it's a tough sell. We just bought his copy of Anna Karenina for that class, and he's dreading it. I'm afraid that reading this books is curbing his love for reading :(

    I've loved some classics, and others I've thought "what's the fuss?" It all depends.

  32. After I graduated from college and started teaching elementary school, I read some classics I had missed in high school and college. I think reading them helped me be a better teacher and writer.

  33. Reading classics is important for writers in the same way that studying art history is important for visual artists. One can examine different styles of literature, what's changed, come in to fashion and gone out, throughout the centuries. One can also examine the elements of literature that have remained popular for centuries.

    For the average reader, reading classics is akin to studying history. One wouldn't expect a child to go through school only learning what's happened in the last 50 years. Honestly, I've long thought that high school and college English classes ought to include a component of comparison between modern popular works and classics of the literary canon, just as history classes often discuss the similarities between things that occurred long ago and current events.

    1. Hi Connie,

      That's a great way to look at reading classics - like studying history. I even like the idea of students reading a classic in conjunction with a history class, something written in the time period that's being studied.

      Thanks for sharing! :-)

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