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?