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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?



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