Why Read Classic Literature?

Seasoned stories lie on the ground waiting to be opened and their mysteries unravel.

Seasoned stories lie on the ground waiting to be opened and their mysteries unravel.

Classic literature, the dreaded lesson in Language Arts class. So why does classic literature matter? That answer lies entirely on the person who reads the question. On one hand, millions of people over decades can point to a handful of books and talk about the meaning and importance of a book written anywhere between 63 or even 210 years ago. On the other hand, simply because something has been relevant for a long time doesn’t mean that it should continue to be so. It’s a complex debate that has seemingly both fallen in and out of relevance during our time.  It’s important to attempt to grasp why these books have become ingrained in the fabric of society and education, because regardless of how you feel about a topic, it’s still important to have a general basis of knowledge to support your opinion. Today I will break down the idea of classic literature, methods to use to help understand classic literature, and finally the relevance of classic literature in today’s society.

When dealing with the idea of classic literature, we have to first understand what makes a book a “classic”. The general consensus of what it takes to be considered classic literature is that the author must have a unique sense of style, world building, and logic, as well as an ability to leave the reader questioning their own morals and thought process, as the piece attempts to paint a picture of moral ambiguity. Finally, the obvious requirement that is needed for a piece of literature to truly be considered classic, is that it needs to be widely known and relevant across a large period of time: a true classic. This lines up with what language arts teacher Mr. Orlowski had to say about the characteristics of classic literature: “A timeless and enduring theme, excellence of craft, relevance to society both within its time period and outside of its time period, and a relatability that makes it interesting to a large enough group of readers.” All of these elements are able to generate a story that, while being set during a specific time period, isn’t tied down to being relevant to any one moment in time. Though none of these requirements answer why these books are so important and are considered to be some of the greatest pieces of literature ever written. In order to understand that part of classic literature, you first need to understand the time period in which these books were written, as well as the impact they had and currently have in our society. 

When dealing with classic literature, it’s important to start off by addressing the “canon debate” that has been going on with classic literature for quite some time. The canon debate simply boils down to the idea that most pieces of literature that are considered to be classics harbor heavy favoritism for white males. Whether or not this is a product of the time or a process designed to exclude those once considered to be unworthy of writing is entirely left up to speculation; however, it’s still important to note the argument’s existence. On the topic of classic literature’s impact on society—it is impossible to break down every book in existence, but I will attempt to show the importance of some of the most impactful books during this time. Hopefully with that you will be able to do your own research on any other books or pieces of literature that you are interested in, with a simple understanding of what aspects of literature goes into creating an impact on our society. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is an excellent example of importance during the time period it was written, and relevance in today’s society. A very short summary of the book: Atticus Finch defends a black man in Maycomb, Alabama. The man is accused of sexually assaulting a white woman and when the case goes to trial Finch shows that not only had the defendant been innocent, but that the people accusing him of the crime had been lying throughout the course of the trial. Unfortunately, the all-white jury convicts the man and sentences him to death, and though he attempts to escape from jail, he is shot and killed in prison. That is a very brief summary of the novel and I would encourage you to read it for yourself as it is an excellent piece of literature, but that’s besides the point. This book was published in 1960 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. It helps shape the ideals and the sense of justice for many people across the country, especially in the deep south. And though it wasn’t a depiction of perfect justice, it helped to show the deep seated racism that permeated throughout every facet of our society which led to the wrongful death of an innocent man. 

Though does all of this even mean you’ll enjoy reading the material? It’s easy to look at all the things that go into a work of literature without ever experiencing the finished product. You may love the idea of classic literature and despise the finished product, or you may love classic literature, but find it extremely difficult to keep up with. The single most important thing with classic literature, like all forms of literature, is to only read it if you are interested in it. Two people reading the same book might get a drastically different takeaway, yet does that mean that you should never read? Obviously not; it’s important to read what you like and what you enjoy. If you enjoy reading classic literature and derive from it a strong sense of morality and justice, then that is amazing and I encourage you to read as much and as often as you can. If not, I encourage you to find something that does interest and engage you in any way that you wish to do. The reason why people recommend classic literature is usually because of the intended impact of the work. However, if you are able to develop a strong connection with any piece of literature, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a classic or whether it’s never been heard of. All that matters is what you are able to take away from it.