Why Writers Should Read the Classics

7:00 AM



Yes, I'm aware of the fact that "classics" is not a genre.

We're going to proceed anyway.

Just look at that sass. 
I'm not sure if I've talked about this enough, but I'm a huge fan of the classics. I don't own as many of them as I would like but I could flail over them all day. Brave New World, 1984, The Iliad, Les Miserables, and anything by Mark Twain are all books that have influenced me and my writing in huge ways, more so than most of the more modern YA books I read. The Great Gatsby and Lord of the Flies are some of my favorites, also.

The point here is I could fangirl about any one of these classic books all day. 

Now, I'm no snob about this. I don't read them and then proceed to analyze them and look at them closely. I discuss and think about them, yes, but I'm no genius. I just...enjoy reading them and getting those thoughts. And sometimes I go for long stretches without reading any classics at all while I stuff my brain with YA. There's nothing wrong with this. Or with not liking classics regularly, for that matter. 

But I do think there's something to say for the way they can influence and teach us as writers. 

They show us great writing. Self-explanatory. I grew up on Tolkien, Lewis, and a good helping of children's classics I can't even remember most of the names now. I really honestly think that had a positive influence on my writing as I began. And there's no doubt that the quality of writing in most of the classics is stellar. I mean, have you read The Great Gatsby? The writing is atmospheric, tight, vivid. Those descriptions, man. The language might be a little hard to wade through sometimes but it's quality stuff. It can teach us how to structure sentences, how to craft those one-liners that punch you in the gut, show us examples of sentences or paragraphs that make you think, and pretty much everything else. I'm convinced that just filling your brain with writing like that, even if you don't understand all of it (heck, some of the sentences in Les Mis turn my brain upside down) can affect the way you write and the way your sentences flow. 

I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.  -F. Scott Fitzgerald    This lovely quote from:

 They make us think about great themes. Slightly snobby opinion: most YA isn't all that deep. Now, I'm not arguing about YA being smart, or capable of having stunning themes, or any of that. I've read plenty of smart, thoughtful YA books that made me think. There's quality stuff there as there is in any other genre. But there's also a lack of real substance in a lot of YA. There are some classics that were really written to drive home a theme or a situation or just make you think, and they're a great place to learn about theme in general. True dystopias like Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and so on, make us think about the government and what's really going on in society. Books like Lord of the Flies are a creepy and subtle commentary on humans and how we function. Reading classics inspired me to work themes like that into my own writing. 

There are few to no literary elements used in the novel. Everything is generally very obvious even if the language used is not.   Quote one.:
From Brave New World, which is kind of stunning and
everyone should read it. 
They're classics for a reason. As writers, we want to write books that stand out. Books that people read again and again. Heck, I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to write a classic, something like Harry Potter that would be known and raved over forever. Or better yet, something like Lord of the Rings, that people still love long after the author is dead. That's the ultimate goal. But what is it that makes a book timeless, read again and again? What is it about To Kill A Mockingbird or The Iliad that keeps people coming back to it? What makes a really great book? Reading the classics can be a valuable insight into what kinds of qualities lead people to find so much value in these books.

 :
One day I'll rant about Les Mis and you'll all see the level of my feels. 

And finally, the most important fact: 

They're just plain awesome. Have you read any of the Narnia books? They're awesome. H.G. Wells is bizarre and sci-fi and pretty scary and fun to read. Les Miserables will give you ALLLLL the feels and make you weep for days. There's some pretty exciting stuff that goes down in most of these books. They're not all dry and boring. If you take the time to really read them, you'll see just how much they can come to life. 


That's my argument. I'm not sure what else I could say, other than: I get that classics are hard to get into sometimes. I get that not everyone runs around the room screaming because they're fangirling over The Iliad which I have totally never done because I'm a mature person. That's okay. You're not stupid for not getting into the classics. I just think there's value in reading them anyway. 

Do you have a favorite classic book? 


27 comments

  1. Classical literature, vague as the definition may be, is definitely awesome. I do disagree that YA doesn't show deep themes -- definitely, classical literature tends to be built around major life themes, but I feel like that's a weakness when the books are just HAMMERING it into your head. Whereas in YA the commercial demands mean that the focus is the plot and characters, but themes can still be found everywhere.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *shrugs* I would definitely say that you can find a lot of themes in YA -- my favorite books ever are YA and contain some powerful stuff -- but a lot of it tends to be on the shallower side of things. But that's just how I tend to see it.

      Delete
    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

      Delete
    3. I think there's a lot of YA that doesn't have deep themes; there's a lot of YA that does. Half of that YA that does have deep themes have poorly developed characters, the other half has poor setting, the other half suffers in something else, most of these probably suffer in multiple things. This is not something unique to our time. I'm sure that there were a lot of pathetic novels in the 1800s that didn't have great themes. However, the CLASSICS--the stuff remembered and raveled at--are going to have it all: deep themes, great characters, setting, writing, etc., generally speaking, because it's the best of the best, and it's the stuff that has gotten English fads thinking about for hours and the stuff that they CAN think about for hours. Therefore, it's not even fair to compare; you're going to find some really great, thought provoking themes in classic literature. However, I agree with your statement, that some YA does have some deep themes, and you can think about and discuss them a lot, but, like any time in history, the vast majority of books can't match up in many ways to the books that are remembered. I don't think she was trying to bash YA books at all, because, like she said, her favorite books are those, but I wouldn't say the majority of YA books are quality, or the majority of any genre are incredible.
      With the exception of persuasive literature, like Uncle Tom's Cabin, I haven't found classics that classics tend to hammer themes into my head. I always have to dig a little for them, but I'm also not supremely good at that, so it may not stick out to me as much. And, sorry I ranted... procrastinating from things. This is what I do to procrastinate. Sigh. Off to work.

      Delete
  2. Awesome post, Aimee! I agree classics are hard to get into. I've quoted Twain on this several times (not verbatim, of course) but he says something like this, "A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but nobody wants to read." Sort of ironic, seeing as he wrote some classics himself :P It's true though! I want to boast and brag that I've finished and thoroughly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice, or Sense and Sensibility or Emma, or any Jane Austen book ever, but I just can't. Little Women is another one I've tried to read, and I did finish it but I think I was distracted most of the time and totally failed to enjoy it. So that's something to get back into.
    However, I recently FINALLY finished ALL of the Chronicles of Narnia AND THOROUGHLY ENJOYED THEM. C.S Lewis uses such simplistic language, personal language, and can still create a flipping masterpiece. My favorite parts will always be the creation of Narnia (hits me right in the feels because of how excellent and amazing it's described) and when I can connect Aslan and Narnia to Christianity, and how to deal with certain challenges. That man is incredible and most likely the sole writer I look up to. I need to read LoTR, Lewis and Tolkien were close friends who encouraged one another.
    I think what is so great about the classics is when they were written (generally 1800s, early 1900s give or take) so they really truly focused on themes that really reflected the time period (naturally) themes that though are consistent with time weren't particularly what we experience today (like carriages and the society) and so it makes things more interesting! It makes us learn things!
    Have you every read The Age of Innocent by Edith Wharton about New York society back in the early 1900s or so, and about the rebel girl who's like "nope, I do not conform to this" and it's just so awesome? See everything in YA seems to be repeated in so way or another, and not only that, but I feel like because we experience a lot of what is written (such as society, or places, or something), IDK I feel like I'm rambling now without concrete reasoning, but for me it just seems more interesting to read about societies that seemed to normal to the writer, like Louisa May Alcott or Edith Wharton. Idk, but yeah :P The classics are not only great writing tools to learn from, but history lessons. :P

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree! I know it's hard for a lot of people to get into the classics, which is totally okay, but I do think they should be read even if just occasionally because they're incredibly important and can teach us a lot. I've not read the book you mentioned yet, but I'm putting it on my list. :)

      Delete
    2. Whoa please excuse all of my typos from my comment. I'm not sure what I was on when I wrote that xD
      But yeah, Age of Innocence is a truly incredible book. I'd be interested to see what you'd have to say about it once you read it :)

      Delete
  3. My favorite classic book is probably Oliver Twist. I think that Dickens is especially hard to get into, at least for me, but he has so many wonderful characters. Fagin and Nancy are some of my absolute favorites. I also love Twelfth Night (it's a play, but I guess it still counts), and I adored The Once and Future King when I first read it. I have to admit that I wasn't too crazy about The Great Gatsby--the language is beautiful, but I had a hard time connecting or sympathizing with any of the characters, except for Myrtle. It was still worth reading, though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I haven't had much success with Dickens, but that's a personal thing. And I guess I saw The Great Gatsby as something where you were *supposed* to dislike the characters, but that's a valid thing to say about it. It's not particularly...enjoyable, I guess?

      Delete
  4. Mmm... Classic feels!! XD I love classics. But I also like to mix in newer books to give my little brain a break. lol! <3

    I have a deep love for Dickens. His snark & sass is the best!! :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me too! I don't spend every day lugging around classics and preaching about how great they are, because I very often need breaks. So I try to fit them in there when I need something deeper than the usual YA. xD

      Delete
  5. I love the idea of classics, and I've read a few-- Great Expectations and most of David Copperfield, at least 5 of Jane Austen's novels, Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit, To Kill a Mockingbird, and lots of kid's classics-- but I have a hard time getting into them because they tend to be SO BIG. War and Peace and Les Miserables, for example, have been on my TBR for YEARS, but I can't get myself to read them because their size terrifies me. I'm really bad at finishing long books and I don't want to stop in the middle of Les Mis and then have to read the entire thing from the beginning a few months later because I forgot everything that happened. (And yes, that sort of thing happens to me all the time, with much shorter books.) Basically, classics scare me.

    But those that I /have/ read are amazing and this post inspires me to read more, so-- who knows? Maybe soon I'll be able to join you in flailing over Les Miserables.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. See, I've always loved big long books, but that's just me, so I totally get it. xD Les Mis is definitely worth the read - I took a long time with it and it's kind of a life-changer.

      Delete
  6. Okay now I have to ask, did you read/like Fahrenheit 451? I didn't, partly because my favorite character was killed right off, partly because I was forced to read it for school, and partly because I was an immature 13/14 year old. Actually now that I'm thinking of it I want to read it again and see what I think again.

    HOWEVER.

    Jane Eyre. Yes. Also Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom. And mythologyyyyy ah.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. FAHRENHEIT 451 IS ONE OF MY FAVORITES EVER KRISSY. *flails forever*

      Those creepy dystopia classics are my favorite xD And that one is written SO well and it's so smart I cannot even. So.

      Delete
  7. I ADORE THIS POST!

    Everything you said here, I agree! I will say, that I haven't read that many classics, but those that I have, I love so much. I loved The Black Arrow. Also, Pride and Prejudice, Narnia, The Giver, all of them! Right now I'm reading Frankenstein and it's so good! It wasn't what I had expected, but it's even better. Themes it talks about and the imagery.

    I've been hearing about Fahrenheit 451 a lot recently. I think I have to read it. Also, Brave New World sounds good too!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Pride and Prejudice and Narnia are just the best - I pretty much grew up on them being read aloud to me when I was younger. xD I haven't read Frankenstein yet but I keep meaning to because it looks so good. o.o

      Delete
  8. I like a lot of classics. ^ ^ They've taught me a lot. The only caution I'd say with them as a writer is that a lot of the old writing styles are outdated and many of the old techniques (such as infodumps) are just not accepted anymore by publishers today. I've seen a lot of young writers with an archaic writing style that is just not done in modern publishing. That's not to say that classics aren't great. I mean C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien have become the grandfathers of YA fantasy, but just keep in mind that times have changed a bit when it comes to style.

    storitorigrace.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, that's very true. I guess I was talking more about how the sentences flow, how it's truly beautiful writing, what we can learn and pick up from that...you wouldn't want to copy it exactly. :P

      Delete
  9. Your sentence here: "Now, I'm no snob about this. I don't read them and then proceed to analyze them and look at them closely" makes it sound like anyone who analyzes classics is a snob. ;)
    I used to be a snob about classics veres YA, that was because I was raised solely on classics even to the point where I wasn't allowed to read much of anything outside the classic ''genre''.
    Now, I've come to realize that both have their place. It's okay to read both. And it's not okay to make someone feel bad because they don't read one or the other.

    Classics are hard to read sometimes, I've just recently figured this out because I stopped reading old lit and read a lot YA. Man, making the transition back to classic lit is hard! lol

    I agree, most YA books are fluff. Not that it's wrong for them to be fluff, it's just what they are. Although because of this I often have a hard time reading YA. In fact I wouldn't consider myself a YA reader. I'm more of a mutt. ;) Probably my favorite books to read are autobiographies. Weird huh? :D

    Wonderful point. Especially for the writers of the world, I think reading a handful of classics is a must.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh, yeah, I tried to phrase that in the least offensive or strange way but sometimes words are hard to get out in the way they are in my brain. xD *shrugs* I grew up almost solely on classics too for a while, and YA is actually a very recent real obsession for me, so I totally get it.

      Delete
  10. *runs around fangirling over this post* THESE ARE MY THOUGHTS EXACTLY. And I love that you shared that piece from Brave New World--it's one of my favorite passages in that book. Like you, I grew up stuffing myself on classics, and sometimes I'll go for long stretches without reading them, but then I'll start longing to read more of them. True, just because they're classics doesn't mean they're all worthwhile--but they've stood the test of time for a reason, and that's something to respect. Many of my deepest, and most satisfying reads have been the classics. I love, love, love Crime and Punishment, Lord of the Flies, Brave New World (pretty much everything you listed except Les Mis because I haven't read that one yet although I plan to). War and Peace was massive, but it was deep. asd;kljasdf I could go on for a couple thousand words, but maybe I should just leave it at that.

    *hugs post*

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ahhhh someone else who's read Brave New World! It's one of my favorites and that whole scene always wows me and I just want to get it tattooed all over my body or something. xD I haven't read War and Peace but I mustttt.

      Delete
  11. Great post. I am definitely a classics fan girl. I like what you said about just reading them for fun and analyzing them a bit. I am not a snob or a genius in relation to literature analysis, I just read them because they are amazingly wonderful books.

    And you are right, reading the best literature will no doubt have a positive affect on your own writing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes! I think there's value in reading a ton of modern books as well so you can figure it out, but classics have definitely had a huge impact on me.

      Delete
  12. *waves hand* I would just like to point out that the reason classics are classics is that they have endured time and that is important. We have a lot of contemporary stories and they are great but they are also new and someday they may fall off the radar because they weren't everlasting. And so if you ever think that everyone in the 19th century just wrote awesome stuff and that our standards have decreased, I would vote no, and the crappy stuff just died a long time ago and that's why we don't know about it.

    I am going to be honest though. I am more of a fan of 20th century literature over anything particularly classic, because while they do have all the good things you mentioned, many of them are quite innocent to the real gravity of life that evolved from, you know, two World Wars, the Cold War, and so on. I have very little sympathy for the 19th century romance... haha. But, I do agree with you in terms of reading as a writer—when you read literature it will give you a little substance. That is, if you read it right. *nods firmly* Great discussion, Aimee!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. *shrug* that's fair, and a good point. I've read a lot of older books that were pretty awful. xD

      Delete

hey. hey. talk to me. i'm a fan of comments and flailing with you. go for it.