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Reconsidering the classics

July 30, 2011

There are only a  few perennial classics of literature. Who reads “Pilgrim’s Progress” today? Who reads “Candide,” or the original and unexpurgated “Gulliver’s Travels”? Who reads the poetry of Pope and Addison, or the essays of Johnson, once considered the backbone of a classical education? Although these works were regarded as classics for a century or more, they fell from favor over the years and are now read mainly by scholars specializing in antique literature. We all would agree that “The Iliad” and certain works by Shakespeare could be safely classified as perennial classics, but when it comes to lesser works the arguments begin.

Here in the United States, our teenagers have to read a number of books in high school that are considered classics of our time. Across the United States, virtually without exception, these books include “Nineteen-Eighty-Four”, “Animal Farm” and “Lord of the Flies.” I politely suggest that when it comes to these books being classics, the emperor has no clothes. None of them is an outstanding example of top-notch prose. The reader endures them and derives no enjoyment from the experience of being manipulated like a pawn. They are didactic and they oppress their readers just like the political regimes they object to. These novels entered the canon of classics only because American educators wanted something that would emphasize the evils that had recently caused a world war. Yes, fascism and totalitarianism are Bad with a capital “B”, but is the forcible indoctrination of students the right way to combat them?

All these books fail the classics test, if by “classic” we mean well-written works of literature that readers can dive into to retrieve renewed insights and/or enjoyment every time. These three tiresome novels are only useful if presented in a civics or history context that focuses on 20th-century  totalitarianism. But when teachers present these books as classics of English literature, they drive home the message that fiction is unpleasant, didactic and not particularly well-written. Can’t our teachers use better books than these three to illustrate what literature can actually aspire to?

So if we assume that the term “classic” means a book that is both well-written and perennially rewarding to reread, what books might make the list? I’ll suggest a few: “To Kill A Mockingbird”…”Pride and Prejudice”…”A Room With A View”…”Jane Eyre”…”the Forsyte Saga”…”War and Peace.” Mark Twain was an outstanding writer who wrote flawed novels, but the first two-thirds of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is outstanding. I could make a good argument for “Gone With The Wind” if it was worked into a unit on American history and accepted as the product of a racist time.

This list is not written in stone, and even though I’m extremely fond of all of the above titles, I could also give good counter-arguments against many of them. But it’s a jumping-off place for debate. I invite readers to suggest their own favorite classics in the comments section below, along with your reasons why.

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