Classic Literature Isn’t Every Student’s Cup of Tea, But Maybe It Should Be

Ruthie Gustason, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Every semester as students enter their new English classes, a chorus of groans can be heard as the class is introduced to their new syllabus.

“We have to read The Great Gatsby?” the kid sitting next to you on the bus complains, only to be countered by his younger sister, “At least you guys don’t have to read To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Classics aren’t always a high school student’s cup of tea. We don’t think we can relate to something written at least half a century before we were born, and a lot of the time they’re written with language that we just don’t use anymore. There are so many words and references that we must look up and it just doesn’t seem worth the time, especially not when there are so many quicker, less dense reading options available. Contemporary literature is a lot different than classical, and while progression and change are necessary aspects of an aging society, it’s hard not to wonder what we’re giving up.

When it comes to the merits of reading, Stephen King said it best: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” Good writers are avid readers, and they apply what they learn from reading the works of other writers to their own craft. Writing is less made up of ideas than it is words and phrases. Improving your writing through reading classics doesn’t have to mean using outdated vocabulary. Writing like a classical author is more about setting a tone and varying the ebb and flow of your sentences. Jane Eyre is not a great book because it uses the words “penurious” and “ameliorate”; Jane Eyre is a great book because it sets a mood so powerful that you can’t get through a single page without feeling completely and utterly depressed. That sort of intensity is not as easily found in contemporary literature, and while it might not be a fun read, it’s great writing.

Modern writing has lost a lot of the symbolism present in a lot of classical literature. We have reverted to telling instead of showing, because it’s easier to write and can be read faster. Nowhere in Jane Eyre does it simply say, “Jane felt sad”. Brontë makes it so incredibly obvious through every word and lift and sentence that it’s almost unbearable to read because Jane is so freaking sad all the time. That is great writing, and that is something we don’t do anymore.

We can’t stop reading classics for the same reasons we can’t stop studying history. We need to learn from the past to create a better future. If you don’t like the way Charlotte Brontë wallows in despair throughout Jane Eyre, maybe you’ll enjoy the way Jane Austen sets her love stories against a light, comedic background. If you don’t like either of those, then you can take what you did or didn’t like from each one to create your own story. There’s no stealing in writing; if it’s your own words, it belongs to you, and taking inspiration from others is highly encouraged.

When you say you don’t like classic literature, you’re grouping together thousands of vastly different books and stamping a big red “No Thank You” on them. Classics are just as diverse as every other literary genre, and everyone has a niche. We each just must take the time to figure out our own and grow beyond it.

If you’re reading only the books you have time for, then you aren’t reading well. There absolutely is merit to young adult fiction and cozy mysteries and paperback romances, but we can’t allow these to overshadow books written to be read critically and truly understood, not just consumed.

It’s important that we don’t become complacent in our reading. We need to always be moving ourselves forward in our understanding of literature and the way the world used to be, and how it is now. The world is always going to be changing and language will shift along with it, but the richness that English once had is something that we should not allow to be lost.

Maybe you won’t be happy on Tuesday when you’re assigned three chapters of Billy Budd, and you might still be annoyed at the end of the book and claim that it’s the worst thing you’ve ever read. That’s okay. You’re not going to like every book you read, regardless of when they were written. Just try to keep an open mind about the books you read, whether you think you’re a fan of classics or not. You never know; maybe you’ll end up liking the next one.