top of page

In Defense Of The Classics

Based on the title of this article, you might be thinking already that I casually peruse Dostoevsky over coffee and quote Byron at nightfall (“Though the night was made for loving, / And the day returns too soon, / Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/ By the light of the moon.”). The truth is I had to google how to spell Dostoevsky because I forget every single time and I’ve never been able to recite a poem from memory unless you include pop songs. Maybe I’ve read a few more classic novels than the average person, but I earned that reader’s badge after four years of university and a healthy amount of student debt.

What is a classic anyway? A lot of what we consider classic literature are those books that have been consistently reread and reprinted. To put it another way, they have stood the test of time. Even if you or I wish they hadn’t stuck around! Reading The Last of the Mohicans in American Lit made me (painfully) understand that just because a book is considered culturally significant, doesn’t mean I will love it or even like it.

Italian writer Italo Calvino offered fourteen possible definitions of Classics in his 1991 book, Why Read the Classics? In these fourteen points, he demonstrates how the term Classic is largely subjective. Particularly in the eleventh definition, when he says, “Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it”. From an early age, I felt defined by Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and A Little Princess. I aspired to have the imagination of Anne, the ambition and talent of Jo, and the kindness of Sara Crewe. I still feel shaped by those books today as they influenced my understanding of the world around me.

Even coming from a place of love for so many of the classics, I still look at War and Peace and think, “Wow, that’s a massive commitment”. According to the internet, if I read 250 words per minute, it will take me over 37 hours to read! Besides word count, why do we feel intimidated by some of the classics? Is it because they are dense and we feel they require too much work? Or maybe it feels like we are reading a new language? The cadence of dialogue is different, the word choices unfamiliar. When I took Medieval literature, I felt terrified of the lines in front of me and the characters in Canterbury tales fell flat as result of my fear. Until Chaucer started writing about flatulence. Some would say death is the

great leveller, I would say it’s farts. If you’re curious, read the Miller’s Prologue and Tale (although, you could also read the Summoner’s Tale. The action revolves heavily around the summoning of gas).

I’ll get to my point now. I don’t think you should read a lot of classics or that you even have to read them to truly appreciate literature. I think how we read classics needs a little workshopping. If I could ask Shakespeare one question (okay, ten questions), I would ask him how he feels about being taught in high school English class rather than experienced on the stage. Most books are not written with the classroom in mind. They were written to move their readers to laughter, to tears, to action. I think Shakespeare would be pretty sad to know that my first experience of his writing was in a group project where I had to stumble over reading the dialogue in front of my crush. Bummer.

So how should we read them? Read the ones that interest you. You don’t have to like all classics to be a reader of classic literature. If you like horror, try Poe or Stoker. If you like romance, try Jane Eyre. If you typically don’t like reading long novels, but want to experience Charles Dickens, trying reading them in installments. Charles Dickens was paid by installment. Most of his novels appeared serially, like a television show, in twenty different parts published over a period of months with illustrations and advertisements. Or, keep rereading the books that you think are a classic in an incubator. Because, honestly, a classic novel is defined by us and time. As a concept, it’s multifaceted and it’s exciting because it’s ours. What novels will become the classics of our generation and what will future readers think of our words?

If you’re already a lover of classic literature or I’ve convinced you to give them a try, here are a few recommendations:

1) Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier (approx. 216 pages)

Most people read Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier first, but I had just watched the film adaptation by Hitchcock, so I decided to read one of her other works. Published in 1942, it’s about Lady Dona, who flees her unfulfilling London life (and husband!) to Navron, their mysterious Cornwall Estate. Here she meets Jean-Benoit Aubery, a Breton gentleman turned Robin Hood-esque pirate, who robs the rich to help the poor. Highly recommend If you like adventure, romance and pirates.

“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape, and there was something strange about her in the morning light, as though she had no part in the breaking of the day, but belonged to another age and to another world”

2) Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis (approx. 256 pages)

Published in 1954, Amis’ first novel follows main character, Jim Dixon, a lecturer of medieval history at an unnamed British university. Except his career isn’t going well, and he has to impress people like Professor Welch, chair of the history department, who tends to ramble on and on about the difference between a flute and a recorder. While navigating the politics of the provincial university, Jim also tries to navigate love as well. The novel pokes fun at the airs, posturing, and pretentiousness of 1950’s academia.

“How wrong people always were when they said: 'It's better to know the worst than go on not knowing either way.' No; they had it exactly the wrong way round. Tell me the truth, doctor, I'd sooner know. But only if the truth is what I want to hear.”

3) The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (approx. 672 pages)

Considered a bridge between the 18th Century Gothic novel and the later 19th Century Detective story, Collins’ The Woman in White was a commercial success and a critical failure at the time of its publication in 1859. The plot centers around Walter Hartright, who is hired as a drawing master to Laura Fairlie, half-sister of Marian Halcombe. The novel contains a sustained engagement with women’s lives and legal rights within the Victorian time, highlighting the unequal position of woman particularly after marriage. If you are a fan of psychological thrillers, I highly suggest picking it up. 1

“Who cares for his causes of complaint? Are you to break your heart to set his mind at ease? No man under heaven deserves these sacrifices from us women. Men! They are the enemies of our innocence and our peace - they drag us away from our parents' love and our sisters' friendship - they take us body and soul to themselves, and fasten our helpless lives to theirs as they chain up a dog to his kennel. And what does the best of them give us in return?”

4) Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (approx. 295 pages)

Considered a “newer” classic, it was first published in 1984. The plot focuses on American journalist Jack Walser who interviews aerialiste Sophe Fevvers, a woman who –supposedly– is a Cockney virgin, hatched from an egg laid by unknown parents, eventually growing complete wings. Enthralled, Jack runs away with the circus and falls into one wild adventure after another. You can read it as a surreal adventure or as a postfeminist piece, or both! Either way, I had a blast reading it (and I had to read it for school).

“Amongst the monsters, I am well hidden; who looks for a leaf in a forest?”


1 Liddle, Dallas. Review of The Woman in White. Victorian Review, vol. 35 no. 1, 2009, p. 37-41. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/vcr.2009.0015

11 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page