The classics cannot seem to catch a break these days. Some people argue that the classics are simply too old and boring for anyone to want to read, let alone a student. In fact, I once heard a librarian say that suggesting a child read a classic book would be to “traumatize” them because of the difficulty of the text! Others argue that having a list of “classic” books is naturally oppressive because the list has long included mostly “old, dead white men” and the books do not present an inclusive understanding of the world and humanity.
Such criticisms are valid. Many students in the U.S. are not reading on grade level, so suggesting they read a book with complex text might indeed be overwhelming for them–though I would argue that the problem here lies more with the educational system than with any particular book. And, for many years, society’s understanding of classics has indeed included predominantly old white men.
However, in the past decades, many scholars and other individuals have worked hard to expand our understanding of what a “classic” is. In many cases, this simply means an older work that has been determined to have some sort of literary value that means audiences still are interested in reading it and publishers want to keep it in print. This is a vague concept that could include any number of titles for any number of reasons such as: the book speaks to a specific historical moment, the book exemplifies a particular writing philosophy or movement, the book has beautiful prose, or the book raises interesting questions about the nature of humanity, society, love, or anything else. With such a broad definition, classic books can include titles written for children, genre fiction, prose, poetry, plays, and, yes, diversity!
So why do so many readers continue to associate classics with stuffy old white men with difficult prose (Dickens, Hawthorne, or Shakespeare, for example)? The problem is that many people tend to read classics in school, when they are assigned these books for homework, and never again. Their one encounter with the classics is defined by a handful of teachers who present to them a very small sample of books. And, in many cases, teachers are simply teaching what they themselves were taught. They have not caught up with the times, or realized themselves that the term “classic” is more expansive than the Western canon.
This does a disservice both to readers and to the classics. There are many worthy–and interesting–books out there that might appeal to student who have no idea they could like the classics, if they found the right one. So let’s explore some examples.
Classics include all age ranges.
When people think of “classics,” they often seem to conjure up an image of the Victorian novel or perhaps of the dreaded Shakespeare. However, teachers might be interested in assigning children’s books to students rather than works written for an adult audience. There are plenty of children’s classics that readers continue to enjoy today:
- Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
- The Watsons Go to Birmingham by Christopher Paul Curtis
- The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis
- Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
- Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild
Classics encompass all genres.
People tend to associate classics with literary fiction. However, there are plenty of genre classics that readers continue to enjoy today! Here are some examples, including some authors and titles we might now recognize as “modern classics”:
- The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien
- The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. LeGuin
- Alanna: The First Adventure by Tamora Pierce
- Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton
- Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie
- Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- Patternist series by Octavia E. Butler
- The Blazing World by Margaret Cavendish
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
- The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Classics cover a wide range of time periods, writing styles, and forms.
Not all classics are Victorian novels like Middlemarch or Bleak House (though both are well worth a read). Readers who do not wish to read a novel might wish to pick up a short story, a novella, a play or even a graphic novel. Likewise, readers who do not enjoy lengthy prose sentences such as Dickens’ may desire to pick up a writer like Ernest Hemingway, who writes in simple, direct sentences. No matter one’s reading preference, someone, somewhere in history probably wrote something that will be appealing. Some examples:
- “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin (short story)
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin (novella)
- Corduroy by Don Freeman (picture book)
- “Recitatif” by Toni Morrison (short story)
- Maus by Art Spiegelman (graphic novel)
- Night by Elie Wiesel (memoir)
Classics can be diverse!
Despite what school curricula might imply, there are plenty of amazing literary works out there that have been written by all kinds of people and that represent a myriad of experiences, expanding our understanding of “what it means to be human.” Here are some titles for your consideration, including some modern classics.
- The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
- The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
- Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
- Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
- Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- The Chosen by Chaim Potok
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
What titles would you add to the list?
Classics are so much more than Victorian novels, Shakespeare plays, and books by “old white men,” but, for many of us, high school, the one place where we will be asked to read a classic book, fails to demonstrate this. This does a disservice to readers, who graduate believing that the past has nothing to offer and that any book written more than five years ago must be old, boring, and outdated. So don’t rely only what you learned in a handful of English classes to judge all the classics. Why not pick up a few more and see for yourself?