The Power of the Classics

To read the classics, or not to read the classics; that is the question. The debate of classic, canonical texts as opposed to modern, non-canonical texts has been long waged in academia, from university to high school corridors across the world. Proponents of classical literature claim that there are many benefits to studying great (and familiar) writers such as William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Harper Lee. After all, without some knowledge of classical literature you would have entirely missed the allusion made in the first sentence of this paragraph, a tribute to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a classic piece of high school reading if there ever was one.

Other than understanding allusions in pop culture and in other literature, classicists argue that certain texts thrive over the years for a reason: quality of work. Why have students waste their time reading trash (or potential trash) when they can be exposed to great writers? However, in a society where literature is forced increasingly to compete with other modes of entertainment, there may be something to be said for less classical texts and their place in the canon.

In ninth grade, my English teacher balanced classical texts (Romeo and Juliet) with less classic texts (Art Spiegelmann’s Maus II). The former, a classic tragic romance by a the Bard himself, proved to be a great reading experience for many members of the class. When faced with the language of Shakespeare, however, some students simply shut down. To help access these reluctant readers, my teacher turned to the graphic novel Maus II. The text dealt with a serious matter (the Holocaust) in what initially seemed to be a light-hearted way. After all, it had pictures. The Jews were depicted as mice, the Nazis as cats. How emotionally disturbing could the book really be? The answer proved to be very.

He may be called the greatest writer in the English language, but he certainly isn't the ONLY writer in the English language! (Image Credit:

As my continued study of English literature might attest, I have a deep and abiding love for English literature in general. I enjoy reading a Restoration play as much as a contemporary novel. My love for Pride and Prejudice is not compromised by my love for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Sure, the classics are important. They often represent themes that are so abiding and widespread they seem nearly universal. Classic literature should not be removed from reading lists entirely.

On the other hand, classic literature does need to make room for contemporary literature, or at the very least literature that is not canonical. Without a balance between the classic and the contemporary, increasing numbers of students will disconnect entirely from reading and literature. We need to find ways to involve all our students in literature, and mixing up our approach is the only way that can be possible.

What are some of your favorite classical (and non-classical!) texts?





Filed under Academic Advice, My Experiences

4 responses to “The Power of the Classics

  1. Jillian ♣

    I love Jane Eyre, Shakespeare, Austen, Montaigne’s essays, Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Gone With the Wind, Charles Dickens — and I’m starting to really appreciate George Eliot. 😀

    I do adore Hamlet.

    Someone pointed out recently, over at Book Riot, that if one reads classic literature only (and avoids contemporary work), they risk missing the chance to read a future great classic in its first edition. I think that’s an EXCELLENT point.

    • Jillian, Thank you so much for reading! The thing I love about even these very canonical writers it that many of them have non-canonical texts. Have you ever read any of Louisa May Alcott’s short stories? Some of them are incredibly different from the very familiar Little Women. I love the point made on Book Riot…thanks for bringing it to my attention! After all, every piece of classic literature was once contemporary!

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