The Problem with Classics

I love a lot about classics. For the most part, there’s a reason they’ve stuck around.

As wonderful experiences I have had reading classic literature, there are some definite challenges that come along with it.

One of the challenges of reading classics is reconciling “old-fashioned” ways of thinking with modern expectations. This stood out to me as I’ve been reading North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. I have been really annoyed with her presentation of gender and class. I’m only about a third of the way through, but I have found the book so far to feel like the worst of upper-class snobbery.

In addition to that, I find the female characters in particular to be really obnoxious and have felt extremely disappointed that a woman was apparently so incapable of writing a competent, complex female character.

I’ve read plenty of books where I noticed problems with gender dynamics before. It’s, unfortunately, hard to avoid – especially when you consider that the history of publishing was so entirely dominated by men for such a long time (and still is, although to a lesser extent). But it is really grating for me in North and South (again – so far; I may change my mind). Does that mean I’m simply not doing a good enough job of getting my head into a 19th century mentality and stop trying to view it through a 21st century lens? Is it my fault for expecting or wanting my values to be reflected? I mean, I really feel like I’m not asking for anything unreasonable here. (Can we have one woman in an 19th century novel that doesn’t faint or burst into hysterics? One woman?)

On the flip side, if I roll my eyes and keep reading, muttering something along the lines of “it’s of its time,” am I letting myself down and minimizing/ignoring the issues I see?

It’s clear that there is some kind of balance that can exist. After all, it is entirely possible to recognize something as deeply problematic while still enjoying and even holding it close to your heart. Perhaps I just haven’t read enough classics to find that balance.

I’ll finish with this: It is disheartening to see yourself (in my case, my gender) in great literature only through stereotypes and paper-cutout-characters. To see yourself only in shadows while everything else is in brilliant color. To see writers time and time again lazily resort to trope after trope after trope. And of course there are many, many other groups who experience this to an even greater degree.

As fantastic as much of classic literature is, I think we have to admit that visibility matters. Being able to see yourself in the stories that you read really matters. It’s why we really do need diverse books.

Classics are worthwhile, by all means. But so is a conversation about where literature has failed.


The Classics Book Tag

For something slightly different today, let’s do a book tag! It’s simply a series of questions to answer and then you would tag somebody that you also want to answer those questions. Except I haven’t actually been tagged to do this one, and I’m not going to tag anybody, so I guess this is more of the Classics Book _____? Also I’m changing one or two of the questions, so…really it’s nothing like it at all. (If you are interested, I believe the original tag is here.)

Anyway, I’ve seen this tag around for a long time (it’s a really old one) and it’s always looked really fun, so here goes!

  1. An overhyped classic you didn’t like.
    • Lord of the Flies and Crime and Punishment. (Although to be fair, I think I would actually find a lot to admire and appreciate about Crime and Punishment if I read it now.)
  2. Favorite time period to read about.
    • If this question is supposed to be about setting, than really anything before 1800 (although I still enjoy a lot of things set in the 1800s, too). If I had to choose something more specific, it would probably be the American Revolution.
    • If this question is supposed to be about classic literature written in a particular time period, I would have to say 19th century. So many of The Greats are from that century that it’s kind of hard to pick anything else, although I’m really interested to give more 18th century literature a try.
  3. Favorite fairy tale.
    • I don’t actually really read fairy tales much at all, but in general, it would be Beauty and the Beast.
  4. What classic are you most embarrassed you haven’t read yet.
    • For the longest time, it was To Kill a Mockingbird, but I finally read that last year (or the year before?). Right now I would have to say it’s probably A Tale of Two Cities.
  5. Top five classics you would like to read soon.
    • A Tale of Two Cities, The Odyssey, Three Musketeers, North and South, and something by Virginia Woolf.
  6. Favorite movie or tv series adaptation of a classic.
    • BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice, the version of Sense and Sensibility with Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, and Kate Winslet (adore that movie!), and BBC’s recent-ish miniseries of Emma. If we’re counting Lord of the Rings as classics, then definitely those movies, too.
  7. Underhyped classic you’d recommend to everyone.
    • I have not read many classics that I consider underhyped, BUT the one that instantly came to mind is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. This is fairly recent to be considered a classic (I believe it was published in the late 1950s), but I still think it counts. It was soooooo good. I had picked it up from a library book sale on a total whim for two reasons a) it was $.25, and b) there was a quote on the front from Arthur Schlesinger saying that it was the best novel about American urban politics. That immediately sold me. I’m not sure if I would love it quite as much if I read it again now (I may just have happened to read it at the absolute perfect time), but I absolutely adored it. It had me snorting from laughter on the train multiple times (not kidding), and was utterly engrossing.
  8. Favorite editions of classic books.
    • I’m fairly utilitarian when it comes to books. I’m less concerned about how pretty a cover is than how it feels in my hand and how easy it is to read. Some books/editions are far too stiff and make it difficult to read one-handed. They don’t flop open nicely and you have to beat the book up a little bit so that it is bendable enough to read. I don’t like books like that. The ones that feel the best in my hand and are easy to read are the regular Barnes and Noble Classics. Their covers are not great, but they’re really comfortable to read, so I really enjoy those.
  9. Recommendations for starter classics
    • Classic literature can be daunting, so here are some suggestions on where to start.
      • Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
      • A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
      • The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
      • Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery

Do you have a favorite classic? What about a classic that most surprised you?


Reading Classics: Where to Begin

For the longest time, I felt extremely intimidated by classic literature. I think it started when I was between 8 and 10 and tried to start a few different classics. I was far too young, but for years and years I just thought that I wasn’t smart enough to read them. I thought classics could really only be enjoyed by PhD literature students. Or some such thing. (I don’t think I knew what a PhD was at the time, but it gives you the gist.)

However, as I started reading classics in school and then finally on my own, I realized that (for the most part), there is a reason that certain pieces of literature continue to be read, even after hundreds of years.

That is not to say that every literary classic is equally accessible. If you’re new to the world of classics, these are the ones I would recommend as great places to start!

  • The Picture of Dorian Gray–I only read this book last year, but I wish I’d read it sooner. It has beautiful writing and interesting ideas, but at no point does it become convoluted or dull. The themes are easy to understand without being boring, and it is quite a gripping read. (Something which admittedly can’t be said about every piece of classic literature.)
  • To Kill a Mockingbird–I have many feelings about this book (which I also finally read last year…embarrassingly late, I know). In my opinion, it is the single most important book published in the twentieth century. It is also as relevant as literature can get (meaning extremely relevant) and is absolutely beautiful.
  • Macbeth–This play is extremely close to my heart. I have a number of favorite Shakespeare plays, but if I had to choose one, I think it would be Macbeth. Happily, I think it’s also a great introduction to Shakespeare. People often seem intimidated by Shakespeare, thinking that his works are exceptionally difficult and hard to understand. I have read a large number of his plays and this has not been my experience. My suggestion would be to a) aim for the big picture, not the details, and b) watch or listen to it if you’re still feeling intimidated.
  • Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility–Ah, Jane Austen. The biggest surprise it seems people often have when reading Jane Austen is how easy her books are to read and how funny she is. I know that Pride and Prejudice is an utterly uncreative beginner classic, but it’s a great one to start with. And Sense and Sensibility is very close to that in my estimation.
  • A Christmas CarolGreat Expectations was the first classic I ever read on my own. It worked well for me, and Dickens is now one of my favorite writers, but I don’t think I would recommend most of his work to someone just starting to get into classics.
  • Pygmalion–This is a delightful play by George Bernard Shaw that was one of the first true classics I read in school. It is the source material for the musical My Fair Lady.

I really look forward to reading more classics. If you have any recommendations, leave them in the comments or let me know on Twitter!