“Classics” Isn’t Really a Genre

Classics

Whenever I see people posting about how they hate classics, I get a little sad inside.  I understand everyone has different reading preferences, and not everyone has to like the types of books I do.  However, I find it disappointing because the books that are labelled “classics” constitute a broad range of writing.  Many readers have finally come to acknowledge that “Young Adult” isn’t a genre; it’s a category of books that includes many genres, ranging from literary fiction to romance to fantasy to science fiction.  The same is true of classics; it’s a category and not a genre.

The books that we call “classics” encompass everything from plays written in Ancient Greece to fiction penned by Americans in the 1960s.  This means they have a wide variety of formats, subject matter, writing style, and genres.  Authors of classics come from every country and every imaginable background; they’re not all “dead white men,” even though American education, at least, tends to focus on American and British classics.  Thus,  War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells is a classic.  The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien  is a classic. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare is a classic.   These are all immensely different books. The only thing that classics really have in common is that they “have stood the test of time,” and a great number of people have found them thought-provoking or moving.  That’s actually pretty encouraging as a recommendation, if you think about it.

Comparing the Classics

I am a firm believer that everyone can find a classic book that they like.  Ok, maybe Shakespeare isn’t your thing. That’s fine.  He was a British guy writing in the 1500s.  Maybe that doesn’t speak to you right now.  But whether you like mysteries, or social commentary, or drama, or science fiction, there is a classic somewhere out there for you. Don’t be misled by whatever you were assigned in high school.  To make my point, here excerpts from the opening pages of several classics, all of which are written in completely different styles:

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (14th Century England)

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.

Paradise Lost by John Milton (17th Century England)

Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of EDEN, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God; I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous Song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th’ AONIAN Mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhime.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (19th Century England)

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.  We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it: I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

Ulysses by James Joyce (20th Century America)

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him on the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:
—Introibo ad altare Dei.
Halted, he peered down the dark winding stairs and called out coarsely:
—Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit!
Solemnly he came forward and mounted the round gunrest. He faced about and blessed gravely thrice the tower, the surrounding land and the awaking mountains. Then, catching sight of Stephen Dedalus, he bent towards him and made rapid crosses in the air, gurgling in his throat and shaking his head. Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.
Buck Mulligan peeped an instant under the mirror and then covered the bowl smartly.
—Back to barracks! he said sternly.

This is a short, limited selection, but it at least demonstrates the progression of literary style in Western literature.  John Milton is completely different from James Joyce.  Both present certain challenges to read, but different ones, and I hope readers will find value in at least one of them.

What’s your favorite classic?

Advertisements

61 thoughts on ““Classics” Isn’t Really a Genre

  1. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I know I’ve said it before but my favorite classic is The Iliad. That book is everything to me. I could read it a hundred times and never get sick of it. And I love The Canterbury Tales. Excellent choice! So many people say they have a hard time reading it, but I love all those hard to read books. Nice post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      I actually haven’t read the Iliad. I keep meaning to get to it. But I also want to find a really great translation.

      The Canterbury Tales is growing on me. I think I had a bad gut reaction to it because Chaucer is like the medieval Shakespeare and people won’t stop talking about how brilliant he, which always makes me want to disagree. But the more I read the more I’ll admit Chaucer’s talent. :p

      Liked by 1 person

      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        I like the Penguin Classics translation by Robert Fagles. It’s really cheap, so I don’t have to worry about the pages getting bent from reading it so much. 😉 I keep my collector copies hidden so they don’t get ruined. I agree. Chaucer is an acquired taste, but I think most Shakespeare lovers will like his work. When I first read it, I was so taken back by Middle English, but once you get used to it, you can really dive into it. I really like Troilus and Criseyde. I read that Shakespeare took some of his inspiration for Troilus and Cressida from Chaucer’s poem. They were both incredibly talented. I love reading their work. I remember reading Chaucer before Shakespeare. I’m assuming my teachers were trying to introduce their works in order.

        Like

        • jkimexploring says:

          I like Chaucer more than I like Shakespeare, partially because the way Chaucer writes it’s more of getting into the mindset of the writing where Shakespeare I have to struggle over what he means if I haven’t read the play multiple times but also because the characters are so much more alive and diverse than in Shakespeare (like the Wife of Bath).

          Liked by 1 person

          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            That’s a good point. I read Chaucer before Shakespeare, and the only reason I was able to get into Shakespeare is because I was so accustomed to Chaucer. I agree. Sometimes I’m left wondering what Shakespeare meant where with Chaucer it’s more obvious to me.

            Like

            • jkimexploring says:

              I read Shakespeare first. I think they actually complement each other. You can read one or the other but it’s easier to understand both of them if you read the other. I saw an increase in being able to understand Shakespeare after reading Chaucer and vice versa. Maybe because they both use very outdated language and you just get used to it more.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. QuirkyVictorian says:

    Love this post! It always frustrates me when people say they don’t like classics. I assume that what they’re thinking of is flowery 19th century language, or maybe they didn’t have a good experience in school with analysing classics, and that left a bad taste in their mouth. But it’s really silly to say you don’t like a whole category of books, the only universal attribute of which is that they are generally acknowledged to be important, good books that have stood the test of time. Loved the comparison, too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Krysta says:

      For some reason when people say they don’t like classics, I assume they’re saying they don’t like Victorian novels. And then I get confused because not all classics are Victorian novels and not all classics will even take some adjusting to, like Shakespeare.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. ravenandbeez says:

    I know that Classic isn’t a genre and honestly I have read some classics that I absolutely loved like Little Women, Black Beauty, Journey to the centre of the earth, The lord of the rings (Just read the first two books so far), Canterville ghost etc. etc. but I think the main reason I shy away from classics is because we were FORCED to read it in schools and that has left a baaaad mark on me.

    I think you would remember how I said I didn’t like Silas Marner in one of my posts and you said you had really liked it. And maybe if I had picked it up on my own accord (like how I read the above mentioned ones) instead of being forced to in school I might have loved it because the story was really beautiful and sweet.

    And among a lot of classic lovers, not liking Shakespeare is considered a sin and that makes me not want to accept that I do in fact love classics.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I definitely have some memories of bad classics I read in school. I read some of them later and hated them then too, though, so maybe they’re just actually awful books (or at least not my thing!) :p It’s just such a shame because kids have to something in school; I don’t think there’s a way around that. And I think some people would react badly to being forced to read anything. People probably hate Harry Potter just because some schools have started reading it.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nish says:

    Very true. It’s just a very generic term to use. There’s a classic for everyone, I say. If you like crime, there’s Wilkie Collins, if you like romance, there’s Jane Austen, if you like family and social dramas, George Eliot. And if you like diversity in your reading, there are great works of literature in so many languages, and with pretty good translations, too!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      So true! And every genre has classics! Even science-fiction and fantasy lovers can find something, which is something that surprises many people I talk to. Classics aren’t just Victorian novels!

      Like

  5. saraletourneau says:

    I try to read one or two classics each year. It’s hard only because of ALL the books I still want to read (brand new books, recent but not brand new, classics, and so on… ), but I do make an effort. A few off the top of my head are Ursula K. Le Guin’s science fiction stories (I read The Left Hand of Darkness a year or two ago, and now have The Dispossessed and The Lathe of Heaven), more of Tolkien’s work (hoping to get to Unfinished Tales over the summer), and other SF&F books by Robin Hobb, Tamora Pierce, and Anne McCaffrey.

    As for all-time favorite classics… Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, of course. 🙂 I also love UKLG’s Earthsea cycle and C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. And aside from speculative fiction, I also enjoyed Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I have such a huge TBR list because I keep seeing new books that look really interesting! But I find that I tend to reread my classics more than I reread modern books, even if I enjoyed them. And of course that means my TBR list just keeps growing…..

      Tolkien and Lewis are definitely two my favorite classic authors!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. jkimexploring says:

    Some of the books people define as classics are relatively easy to read like 1984, The Importance of Being Earnest and Oliver Twist. They’re thought provoking or just plain funny. I like reading classics (that I’m not forced to) because there’s so many references to them in modern writing that I tend to get more out of more modern books as well.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      1984 is a good one! I do think people overlook that more recent books can be classics, too, and a lot of time the writing is more straightforward once you hit the 20th century. 😀

      Good point about the references, too! You really begin to see how people reference Shakespeare all the time, for instance.

      Like

      • jkimexploring says:

        There are so many good classics and I think people are intimidated just by calling them classics. They think they will be difficult, especially because a lot of them go over the heads of high schoolers (I’m looking at you Joseph Conrad-i still don’t understand him) but there are also easier ones that aren’t necessarily taught.

        Like

  7. Hey Ashers! says:

    This post is excellent; love the comparisons, especially. 🙂

    I’m a Jane Austen guy, personally, but I also love Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. At the top of my classics reading list right now are The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. Can’t wait!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I haven’t read any Jane Austen actually. It’s one of my big secrets. Krysta bullied me into watching a lot of the movies though. :p I DO love Dumas, however.

      Liked by 2 people

      • jubilare says:

        Really? …wow. I am surprised. Watching Austen is fun, but it’s not until you read her that you really begin to get how hilarious and gently (or sometimes not so gently) satirical she was.

        In case you ever decide to try her out, my two favorites, hands down, are Persuasion (her most beautifully written, but slower than some of the others) and the ubiquitous (for good reason) Pride and Prejudice. Emma is pretty fun too, with a very unconventional heroine (Austen feared that no one, other than her, would like Emma, but she was wrong), and Sense and Sensibility is solid.
        I’m not so much a fan of Mansfield Park, or Northanger Abbey, but the latter is fun as a parody on Gothic lit. Mansfield Park is mostly, to me, just frustrating. 😛

        Like

        • Krysta says:

          Yeah, I’ve only read Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park each once. They just didn’t resonate with me as much of the others. I loved P&P and Persuasion, but I didn’t love Emma until I saw the Romola Garai version. Before that I thought Emma was horrible and manipulative, but Garai plays her as young and high-spirited, and I can go with that.

          Liked by 2 people

          • jubilare says:

            Emma’s manipulative arrogance is, to me, rather innocent. She’s oblivious, and has never been made to take a good look in the mirror, which is what happens to her over the course of the book. She actually reminds me a lot of myself before I was made to do some self-evaluation. Cleverness and self-assurance make for a dangerous combination.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Krysta says:

              I definitely didn’t get all that the first time I read it, though. I was pretty young myself so probably not as forgiving of other young people making mistakes, either.

              Liked by 1 person

            • jubilare says:

              That’s one thing that always astonished me about Austen. How well she understood how people work. Her characters aren’t even exaggerations. I feel like I could actually meet them. Even the secondary and tertiary characters feel human.

              Liked by 1 person

          • jubilare says:

            That said, there always was this creepy element to Emma for me: My brother’s relationship to me, in terms of being the voice of reason and restraint, closely mirrors Knightly to Emma. Which makes the whole romance thing even more squicky than just the age difference (which was, of course, nothing unusual for the time). 😛

            Like

            • Krysta says:

              Hm. I just looked it up and it’s apparently a 16 or 17-year age gap. I thought it was slightly smaller. I know it was normal at the time, but Knightley does make it a little weird by referring all the time to seeing her as a baby and stuff. :S

              Liked by 1 person

  8. jubilare says:

    Hear! Hear!

    I think, some times, “disliking classics” is a snobbish thing. Ironic, that the reaction to perceived snobbishness is to be a snob. Also, because classics, having stood the test of time, tend to be from earlier periods, I think they take a little more (sometimes a lot more) effort to be accessible… and it’s easier to be lazy.
    But that laziness, that desire to read only the product of one’s own time and place, because it is more comfortable, or more easy to understand, has the same dangers that come with any kind of laziness. It atrophies the mental and emotional muscles. We never stretch our understanding or our empathy to encompass the experiences of other times and places. And in doing so, we effectively put on blinders, and are unable to see our own culture because we have nothing to compare it to.

    And now I’m rambling.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Whenever new people ask me what I’m reading or what books I like, I have an inner moment of panic. Do I tell them fantasy and have them think I’m stupid or do I tell them I’m reading Shakespeare or Charles Dickens for fun and have them think I’m a snob? Because you’re right that the reaction to perceive snobbishness can be…snobbishness. I’m not trying to say I’m better than other people because I actually enjoy Hamlet!

      I do get disappointed, too, when people say they don’t like classics and then it turns out they haven’t really read any because they think the language is too difficult. How can you not like something if you haven’t even tried it? I admit I have trouble sympathizing with that mindset, though I try to be accepting of everyone’s reading preferences.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Briana says:

        The “difficult language” thing always bothers me. I’ve probably said before that I probably have a unique perspective because I read a lot of Middle English, and ANYTHING else can look “easy” in comparison. But, you know, some more modern classic authors actually prided themselves on really simple and accessible language. So what are people talking about? Exclusively classics from that 1800s and back?

        Liked by 1 person

        • jubilare says:

          That’s another difficulty. One really has to ask someone what they mean when they say “the classics” because it’s so broad that people can have wildly different books in mind when talking about them. :/

          Like

      • jubilare says:

        Right there with ya. I think part of my mania for box-smashing comes from how frustrated I get by these false assumptions and false dichotomies. I smash because I care! 😉

        Liked by 1 person

  9. noteablepad says:

    This is such a great post! YES! I completely agree. I always get a bit confused when people say they don’t like classics. I love all of the excerpts in the post; all texts I’ve read and studied, but it’s important to note that just because they are classics, it does not mean they’re the same. I might not like Joyce very much, but it doesn’t mean I’ll disregard all classics because of that.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Thanks for stopping by!

      I kind of want to know what other people think of when they hear “classics.” Because it seems like some hazy place where there’s Shakespeare, Victorian novels, and generally convoluted language. Which, honestly, was probably my conception of classics in high school. Even though the teacher tried to tell us about the different literary eras, I don’t think I had a very good grasp of periodization until I took literature classes in college.

      Liked by 2 people

      • noteablepad says:

        I had the same experience .. I couldn’t differentiate between the periods for the longest time, and it makes all the difference when you can.

        Like

  10. Sakina says:

    I love Greek plays and mythology! I think my favourite would have to be Medea or the Odyssey! I also loved Pride and Prejudice! My favourite American Classic would have to be Uncle Tom’s Cabin – I need to reread it again at some point because I was only 16 when I first read it and I don’t think I fully understood everything. Still need to read Jane Eyre, which I’m hoping to get to this summer, and Frankenstein too!

    Like

  11. Emily | RoseRead says:

    Great post! I like how you put in the excerpts o show just how different they are! It is weird that “classics” is a “genre” that seems to be based on merit rather than actual genre. It’s a very unclear line that a book must cross: how old must it be? how “important” must it be? I absolutely agree that there is at least one classic out there for everyone. As for my favorites, I like anything from Jane Austen to “To Kill a Mockingbird,” from “Frankenstein” to anything by Charles Dickens. I tend to lean more to the British side of things.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Great questions! And sometimes the answers are arbitrary. I was actually just reading a scholarly article that said that Penguin repackaged a bunch of naturalist authors in the 1980s (like Norris, Dreiser, London) and sound them as “classics” to make money. Penguin just decided they were classics. Which doesn’t mean they were WRONG–people seem to agree there’s something worthwhile in the books–but the process can be entirely random.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews says:

    I am brand new to classics. I never had to read them for school and I put off trying them on my own for so long because they absolutely terrified me, haha. I was so worried that I wouldn’t be able to understand them because of the language and I was super intimidated by it.I felt like I’d be laughed at if I didn’t understand the deep analytical meanings in some of the texts so I just stayed away from them.

    However, this year I FINALLY decided to step out of my comfort zone and pick some up and I am so glad I did! I do struggle a little, but I am slowly getting used to the prose and formatting. There’s so many interesting stories and characters and I’ve been telling myself that it doesn’t matter if I don’t completely understand and that I always have Google to look things up, haha.

    I’m a huge horror fan so I’m definitely trying to make my way through a lot of the darker/Gothic classics. As well as the sci-fi/dystopians and I have a fair few on my TBR! My favourite that I’ve read so far is The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It honestly changed my entire life and I am so glad I decided to give classics a go otherwise I would never have gotten to experience it.

    This post was a really interesting read and I’m definitely going to save it for future reference!

    Like

    • Cinderzenablogs says:

      You should read Wuthering Heights and The Picture of Dorian Gray for Gothic, and The Handmaids Tale and 1984 for the dystopia genre. All books I enjoyed reading. Not all of the ‘classic’ books are hard to understand. Yes it is definitely more interesting if you were familiar with the historical context of the books but it really doesn’t matter as they are complete stories in themselves. You’ll find a lot of ideas in common with contemporary novels too.

      Like

      • Lauren @ Wonderless Reviews says:

        Those are all on my list! I’m really excited 😊 And, yeah I’ve definitely discovered that! I’m glad I decided to step out of my comfort zone and try them. I think I would have felt less intimidated if I read them in school, but I’m also glad I didn’t have to because now I can enjoy them without the pressure of assigned work and read whichever ones I want.

        Liked by 1 person

  13. evaallbooksconsidered says:

    Great point! I think it depends on the genre of classic as to which is my favorite — I love Persuasion by Jane Austen (I read it every year) but I also love Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

    Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s