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Is Reading Classic Literature Important?

Let me know if this is you.

You're sat in a classroom on a dull day, highlighting key quotes from To Kill A Mockingbird to use in the essay you're going to begrudgingly write.

You're reading Shakespearean sonnets, counting out the beats so you actually know it was written in iambic pentameter. 

You're struggling through a novel written over a 100 years ago because it was written in a really wonky way, and your teacher's only explanation for this is that this is 'just how they wrote back then.'

I've been in these situations, and even with this, my English teachers were some of my favourites. With a good teacher, the world of critically reading books is as interesting as reading for pleasure. With a bad teacher, it feels like you're slowly pulling legs through stiff mud: you will get where you are going eventually, but it's going to be an agonising struggle. It is a shame that for most people, this is how they are introduced to classic literature, because I think it ruins both the desire to read books before your time and the desire to dig for deeper meaning in what you read.

Literature, as in with a capital 'L', is a staple of art and education. It's not simply the act of creating a story, but writing a text with 'enduring importance', as David M. Wright states, something that is both timeless and universal. The books we are taught about are deemed as important, signifiers of literary movements, chosen by writers and scholars across time. As the YouTube Channel PBS Voices argues, these chosen books, some of the examples being Moby Dick and War & Peace, are part of the literary canon, a list of books that is not written down but is thought of as common sense, like you should just know that these books are important. I would say a good part of learning English Literature was trying to work out whether the books being taught actually have the timeless meaning other writers claim they do.

Learning about literary movements is important, as history offers a richer context to the stories we consume today. I think people have an idea that learning about this stuff is limiting to the way the reader consumes a text but from my experience, and what I have learnt in uni, most movements, and therefore most literature, began as a way to revolutionise art and push back against cultural norms. I would agree with Ginni Chen as she writes on the Barnes and Noble blog that whether we are aware of it or not, 'reading a book is never an isolated incident but part of a tradition'. The YouTube channel lucythereader goes further with this, arguing that books written during a particular time period are able to preserve that time in history, unlike modern historical fiction which is only able to take a retrospective look at this time. The reader knowing the limitations of a writer and the constraints of the censorship that may have been in place at the time allows them to hold the artist to a reasonable amount of accountability for their shortcomings and unconscious prejudices. All of this allows newer writers to build upon and improve their cultural understanding and therefore their ability to create an original narrative. By knowing the structures of the past, they can be transgressed. They can be improved upon.

I think where people become unstuck with even engaging with classic works is the assumption that they are difficult and therefore not worth pursuing. I don't like feeling stupid and like I'm not understanding something, so the desire is to ignore it completely and only read works that I know I am smarter than. But this desire is bad. It is important to challenge yourself, your word level analysis and your ability to understand complex subjects. As Alexa Donne on YouTube states, it is good to read things you don't like sometimes because then you are able to figure out what you don't like and classic works can give you the language to articulate why you don't like a novel.

It is unfortunate that reading classics only seem to be used a symbol that, 'yes, I am, in fact, smarter than my peers', because it encourages people to only read these works to say that they have read them. With that being said, Donne argues that the other side of this, the anti-intellectualism side of this debate, isn't helpful because it attempts to argue that there is no reason at all to read classic works. She goes on to argue that some commercial fiction just does not have the intellectual weight of the classics and whilst they would suffice as a pleasure read, they just would not be worthy of study.

And I fully acknowledge that some people just don't want that. They don't want to feel like they have to look on Sparknotes to understand a book. This doesn't mean it isn't important though.

I don't want people reading this to think that I am bashing the accessibility of a work. Of course, I want people to enjoy what they read. I want people to see themselves in the books they read which many classics just do not have, particularly if you are only looking at the books assigned to you in school. Many classic works written by white middle-class men, solidifying this singular perspective as the universal one, and many modern readers have pushed back against this.

As a young woman, only reading novels written by men, about men, has become more and more alienating. Whilst I can accomplish it, there is also this distance I hold myself at because I know that often the man writing the novel wouldn't have even seen me as a person, never mind thought to centre a story on the experience of someone like me. The YouTube channel Climb the Stacks expands on this idea, arguing that even critiquing the misogyny that permeates these works is seen as writing off the books as whole, or worse, not understanding what the novel is even about, as if offering criticism of a text is expressing hatred or naivete to its themes.

And this is honestly only the tip of the iceberg. I cannot imagine being a black student, going through the British school system and having very little texts written by black authors. Furthermore, the texts being studied often don't even have black characters in them, and when they do, they are not written well. If I, as a white British woman, found this frustrating, I cannot imagine how alienating it must be to not see yourself ever, and when you do, only through a white gaze. I can understand why not reading the classics would be a prerogative for you.

The point of this post was not so much to convince you that classic novels are superior but rather that they should at least be considered outside of a school setting, particularly if you are from a marginalised group. There is so much in history that has been left out of education, and this includes the works of queer writers, black writers, women writers and so on. It is frustrating that extra effort has to be taken to find these works and it is not fair that the curriculum does not deem them worthy of study. I would argue that even the books we are given weren't taught that well, otherwise why would so many recoil at the idea of reading a book written pre-1960?

I am confident in the fact that reading makes you a more rounded and empathetic person. Moreover, it gives you the language to say why you don't like something. Now, I know that I am biased. I am an ex-English Literature student and I love reading about how modern novels have been shaped by classic ones. The ability to dissect a text gives the reader the ability to dissect the world, to empathise, to understand not only what is being done, but why it is being done. Even as someone who likes and enjoys classics, I have preferences and I can't vouch for all of them. I'm quite selective with what I read. As the apocalypse seems like more of a reality, I can't afford to waste time on art that I'm not going to even enjoy. 

I would recommend the same for you as well. If a novel's racist caricatures are making you uncomfortable or angry, you are under no obligation to like that book. Or even finish it. It is so important that the layperson has the tools to criticise a piece of text written in the past, and that these skills are not just given to academics.

 As Terry Eagleton states:

‘There is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it. “Value” is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes.’


Thank you for taking your time to read this. I have linked a playlist videos I used for research here if you are interested in looking further into this topic. I have also started a Ko-fi page where you can tip me if you enjoyed my post, or my blog in general. 


Ginni Chen, ‘Why Read the Classics?’, Barnes and Noble Blog,<> [accessed 10 August 2020].

‘Reading Classics as a Woman’, Climb The Stacks < v=3QLsK4nGYLw&list=PLaGIkGWlfb3AfXif2JCpG_ES0NmjvDY09&index=7&t=0s> [accessed 10 August 2020].

‘Do We Have to Read Classics?’, Alexa Donne, <> [accessed 10 August 2020].

Terry Eagleton, ‘What is Literature?’, in Literary Theory: An Introduction, 2nd Edition, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), pp.1-14.

‘WHY I READ CLASSICS’, lucythereader, <> [accessed  10 August 2020].

‘Why Did They Make Me Read This in High School?’, PBS Voices <> [accessed 10 August 2020].

David M. Wright, 'Why Read Literature?', Memoria Press, <> [accessed 10 August 2020].