Article: The Case for Classic Books by Lara Lee

Before I earned my Master’s degree in Special Education I did not know that there was a debate about the use of classic books in education. I had assumed that classic books was just standard in the American classroom. I was wrong. What I have learned is that it really depends on the school and teacher’s philosophy of education.

Currently, especially for the youngest children and those with struggles, the focus in Reading is purely on function. Schools want children just to be able to read anything and understand it. As students get older the focus often then changes to reading for knowledge (nonfiction) and reading for enjoyment things we think that will motivate them: trendy pop culture fiction. For each of these goals, I believe educators are misguided to dismiss classic books as being irrelevant, and, at worst, contrary to their goals. Part of the reason for this is because many people don’t understand what a classic book is.

The vast majority of people I have spoken to think of classic books as being difficult old books that have nothing to do with today if they are even understandable to the average person. This is a huge misconception. Yes, there are many very old classic books and some of them can be difficult to understand, but that is not the definition of a classic book. Classic books are books that have stuck out in time as the best of the best by the majority of people. They don’t have to be very old, but they never end up fading from popularity because we all agree that these are really good stories. Modern examples of classic books can be the Harry Potter Series, the Eric Carlie Picture books, Dr. Seuss, and many others. Every time period has produced a handful of classic books that have risen above the mass of literature in their time. These are the books parents have recommended to their children or cultured intellectuals have recommended to each other over and over again.

I have been told that classic books were not culturally diverse. Again, this argument is ignorant. Some of the best and oldest of classic books are from other countries. Arabian Nights was not western literature. Tale of Genji is amazing! The Little Prince, Pipí Longstockings, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, The Hunchback of Norte Dame, Don Quixote, and many others have entered our culture as translations. We are not limited to a single culture when we look for the best of the best. In fact, we are LESS culturally diverse when we choose trendy modern books in the US when 89% of what is being published today is by white English speaking authors.

But all of this still doesn’t cover why we should pick old classic books. If our goals are to create readers in our children, shouldn’t we pick newer more relatable stories?

No.

It is fine for children to read newer books for entertainment if they want to outside of school, but the vast majority of books are going to be bland mush. It is always like that in any time period. The classic books are the best of the best. These are the books that sparkle with interesting characters and exciting plots. They often are in different places and times, but we still relate to the struggles and human motivations of the people. Classic books are well written to draw us in and make is part of the story. Because of the high quality, they are more likely to interest children rather than less. I once heard a black woman who came from a poor school discuss how William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet had changed her life. She related to the feuding families and street violence described in this very old book. She was drawn into the struggles of the young lovers. Why? It isn’t her culture. No, but it is still the human story that transcends culture. This woman has gone on to be an amazing educator with a love for a vast range of literature.

Classic books, because they are so well written, give us much to think about and learn beyond the act of reading words on a page. Even something as simple as a classic picture book and classic young children’s books tell us about the world. My oldest son with autism loved the Frog and Toad are Friends Series. These easy books for the youngest readers have profound observations on what it means to be a friend. These books teach social skills before that was even a trendy thing. The original Winnie the Pooh books also deal with friends who are complex, moody, and even rude, yet they stay close friends. Children may surprise us when we introduce them to harder classic literature too. Reading Treasure Island out loud to an elementary student my seem like a sure way to bore them with the old language, yet I find children love the story’s complexity and exciting plot. The character of Long John Silver is one of the most compelling villains in literature.

When we introduce children to these old books, we ask them to think and wrestle with a messy world. These old books are full of meat for children to contemplate and absorb. They learn how to live and how choices have unexpected consequences. They are given the wisdom of the past undistilled and ready to be applied to their own experiences. Children don’t need preachy modern books who give the political talking points of the day to learn about life. They need a compelling story to wrestle with and remember.

Even though classic books may have complexity and messiness, the plots are often direct and help us clarify the conflicts we face on our own lives. The themes and the development of characters highlight universal human struggles. The relationships help us understand the motivations and drives of the people around us. We learn to accept diversity, not by learning cultural stereotypes from flat politically correct narratives, but from unique complex characters who don’t fit culture stereotypes in stories of odd places and times.

Classic books are not chosen by a committee of intellectuals in an upper class institution. Classic books become classics because their culture, or sometimes another culture, has latched onto them in mass. These books were at some point extremely popular with a wide majority of readers. Sometimes that happened during the writer’s life time, and sometimes it happened after their death. Charles Dickens was very popular in his lifetime while Jane Austin sold only 500 copies of her books in her lifetime. Yet, at some point both authors were extremely popular to the point that their books were widely considered classics.

Can junk books become classics? Perhaps, but what tends to happen with books of less quality is that they become trendy for a short time. A book can become a best seller or wildly popular because it hit a trend or had a good marketing push. Still, over time, the majority of readers will weed out those book that are of quality from those that just don’t measure up and reread or recommend the quality books over and over again.

I have not mentioned in my arguments for classic literature that these book are the best of the best in writing techniques or grammar. The reason is that this not consistently true, especially when dealing with translations. Some books, such as William Shakespeare, Tolkien, and Charles Dickens are the best in techniques and grammar in English language literature, but others such as Mark Twain bend the rules. How then do books that are not perfect in techniques and grammar still become classics? The truth is that many high art literature novel that are perfect in technique don’t become classics. Classic books are such because they transcend rules and formulas to the art of capturing what it means to be human. They communicate to our soul.

So, whether or not I have convinced you to give classic books a try, I will continue to review them here on my blog and recommend them. I am not against reading new books either. The more the merrier, but I read in search for the next classic that holds the meat of human experience in its pages.