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Should I Really Read the Classics? AND a Giveaway

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MacBeth apparition - why read classic literature - enjoying the classics - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

MacBeth: the Apparition of the Kings by Théodore Chassériau, via Wikimedia Commons

There comes a certain point in your time as a reader, at least for more serious readers, when you decide you should read some classics.  When I was a kid, I wanted to read the classics because it was the smart thing to do (and smart was cool, in my lexicon as a middle schooler – although that lexicon also involved lots of ugly baggy 90s shirts, but whatevs…).  Other people read the classics because they’re curious or because someone recommended a certain book or even just because they have to for school.

When I was at the book signing week before last, I was talking with a couple teenage girls there, and they said they hadn’t really read any classics, that they really preferred girly YA books.  And there’s nothing wrong with girly YA books!  I love me some adventurous, booty-kicking YA heroines.  So why read classics?

For a few reasons:

  1. You can more fully understand the fun books you’ve been reading this whole time.  How is this?  Well, most authors are very well-read and tend to incorporate that into their work.  Take JK Rowling as an example – the Harry Potter series is filled with allusions to works like the Iliad, MacBeth, the Canterbury Tales, and the Bible.  The characters even have a discussion about the meaning of I Corinthians 15:26 (“And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death”), among other things, in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  Other examples of this are the frequent allusions to Tennyson’s poetry and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities in Cassandra Clare’s The Infernal Devices series and Suzanne Collins’s abundance of allusions to the Roman Empire and to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in The Hunger Games trilogy.
  2. It makes you part of a unique group. Not everybody reads classics.  You get to be part of the “in jokes,” so to speak, in the literature and book publishing arena whenever people allude to the books you’ve read (and no worries – no one has ready every classical book out there).
  3. It gives you a broader perspective of the world in general.  When could a broader perspective ever be truly bad?  Broader perspectives lead to things like the abolition of slavery and equal rights for women.
  4. It’s fun.  Some classics are just as fun to read as books written in the current era.  See below for a short list.

Easier Classics
A small sampling:

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen – basically a romantic comedy.  Who doesn’t love Elizabeth and Darcy?
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – love in wartime.  It’s a little sad, though, so advance warning.
  • Candide by Voltaire – a French comedy with adventure, love, pirates, and Turkish chain gangs.
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oliver Wilde – a mistaken identity comedy.
  • The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan – a hilariously gossipy comedy, with character names like Lady Sneerwell, Sir Backbite, and Snake.
  • Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare – get the edition that has explanations on every other page, makes all those Shakespearean insults more understandable (and therefore funnier).
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley – dystopian fiction from long before The Hunger Games.


As promised last week…  If you’d like to be entered into the giveaway for a signed copy of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Princess, here’s what you do:

  1. You need to already live in the US or Canada (sorry, international folks, postage is expensive for huge hardcovers).
  2. Comment below with a number between 1 and 1000 by next Sunday, April 7, at 9 pm Pacific Time.
  3. In your comment, if you like, answer this question: what’s your favorite classic book and why?  And if you don’t have a favorite classic, what’s one you’d like to read?

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About Christi

Writing in SoCal.

35 responses

  1. Is ‘to kill a mockingbird’ considered a classic? Maybe neo-classic? It is my all time fave classic.

    And if I understood correctly, I’m supposed to enter a number? 331.

  2. #767
    David Copperfield.
    When I came across a deal at a bookstore I ended up with two box fulls of classic paperbacks. With the goal to finish them I picked the thicker ones first. First Anna Karenina, and then Copperfield. I wont lie I kinda dreaded the size of the book and worried that I’d be bored stiff. But then character David Copperfield made friends with a boy named Steerforth. As I read on I slowly realized to my horror that Steerforth was just like an old friend of mine. Everything from them meeting at school, to Steerforth’s privileged beginnings, to his eventual fall from grace, to David’s drunken praise for his beloved friend at a party. It chilled me to the bone. Luckily the one thing my friend and Steerforth didn’t share was their endings. My friend is still alive and kicking, battered, bruised and pennyless, but alive and striving for better.
    It proved to me that somethings are timeless. If that kind of friendship could be imagined up by a writer so long ago, and then lived out by me now. Then a hundred years from now two friends will go through this.

    • Timeless themes are the best thing about classics and the reason many of them stick around in our collective memory for so long. Thanks for stopping by!

  3. “The Moon Is Down”, by John Steinbeck.


  4. That’s a hard question! I’ll go with Great Expectations even though I was pretty young when i read it and I can’t rightfully remember much at all of what it was about (time to reread it!!!). 1001 for me since I already have an e-copy. Cheers!

    • I haven’t read Great Expectations in years, and I don’t remember the plot either. Since the movie’s coming out, maybe it is time for a reread!

  5. I’m more of a beat generation junkie… Burroughs, Bukowski, Kerouac. I haven’t read A Farewell to Arms (though it’s on my shelf waiting to be read), but The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast have me wanting to read everything by Hemingway. I’ll go with the classic I most want to read: Anna Karenina by Tolstoy. My number is 14.

    • I haven’t read Anna Karenina either — the sheer mass of it overwhelmed me years ago, but I keep hearing that it’s a fantastic read. I enjoy the beat generation reads, too — I wonder how old a book needs to be to be called a classic?

      • Yes, I’m really not sure on what the standards are. But there’s SO much fantastic literature. And I love when more current literature does make those allusions that you talk about in your post.

  6. A Fine Balance is a classic in my world. A book filled with so many of the classic stuggles in literature.

    In terms of actual classics, I always loved Madame Bovary. I probably loved it as a teen when I first read it because it seemed full of everything which was deemed “wrong” by society, yet the book was part of required reading. Interesting juxtaposition for any English Teacher.

    • I loved reading those types of books in high school — it was such a fun little exotic thrill (“Am I really supposed to be reading this? Does the teacher know about this part of the book?”).

  7. Ivanhoe did not entrance me from the get go. It was hard to get into, in part because of the archaic structure of the language, but once I got the hang of it, it swept me into a the Middle Ages and gave me a depth of understanding about how the Jewish people forced to live on the outskirts of society, managed to survive and how beauty of the soul inspires courage. It may have contributed to my incurable romanticism. My number is 777.

    • I feel like I have to get into the rhythm of a classic to really enjoy it — it sounds like that’s what you did with Ivanhoe. The other thing about reading those types of books, too, is that it’s somehow easier to read them in clusters, as if my brain has a “classics mode.” 🙂

  8. Please put me down for 803. And my favorite classic is probably Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. Thanks for a great giveaway and a post on the classics. I love the classics. I feel sad when teens feel they don’t need to read them or think they aren’t relevant.

    • I myself was one of those kind of kids in my youth but I do feel that classic books can be portrayed in a way to attract youth. When i started reading Crime and Punishment, I didn’t know anything about it. If I had known the main character offs an old lady with an Axe in the first chapter I’d probably have read it years earlier. I hate to point fingers, but I think that trying to force the classics on kids in the early years of school could be the biggest problem. Instead of saying that its all higher literature thats timeless, how about we are just simply honest about what happens in the books. Youth don’t realize how incredibly dark and violent Shakespear’s plays were at points.

    • I think you just have to develop a taste for the classics — most of these reader kids will be the type who will develop that taste. 🙂 At least, I hope so.

  9. Nice post. 🙂 I just wanted to add that reading classics is a great way to become a better writer (and also improve reading comprehension). We learn the rules and better writing styles when we read material that is itself very well-written.

  10. realanonymousgirl2011

    I won’t be putting down a number since I already have my signed copy 🙂 You know I’ve tried to read the classics and I actually have an entire shelf of classics that I’ve pretty much never read. Any time I come across a used book sale, I’ll buy up the classics. You can’t go wrong right? Although, I must say Pride, Prejudice and Zombies is actually a fun twist on the classic. You might enjoy it since you like kick ass heroines, if you haven’t already read it.

    • I haven’t read Pride, Prejudice, & Zombies — I’ll have to check that one out! I admit I’ve pretty much stayed away from the zombie literature thus far, despite it being so popular (or maybe because it’s so popular?). I have read plenty of other fun supernatural stuff, though.

  11. “The Three Musketeers” by Alexandre Dumas. It has all the action, adventure, conspiracies, secrets, and romance you could ask for and more.

    And as for a number… 500.

  12. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain because there’s nothing better than having adventures on rivers! My number is 305. Cheers, Maureen

  13. My number is 243. My favorite classic Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I love that Anne is so steady and in love with Captain Wentworth but isn’t overly romantic. She’s tragic without meaning to be. Plus who doesn’t love Jane Austen’s beautiful use of language.

    • That’s one of Austen’s that I haven’t yet read — I’ll have to check it out sometime. And I agree — who doesn’t love Austen’s gorgeous language?

  14. I’ve been meaning to get into the classics more but didn’t know where to start. It seems so daunting to take on reading all of the classics! I’ll definitely start with your list. I’m in love with your blog already!

  15. I had no idea that so many of today’s popular novels draw on these classics. Thanks for enlightening me!

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