Why we still read "the classics"

It's important for kids to understand other societies

4th August 2018

We know how this works – you start high school, have a bunch of books to read, take the final exams, and then two unconscious choices arise: either remember every single detail of it because you loved it, or forget everything because it didn’t suit you.

Over the last 30 years, books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice, or The Catcher in the Rye, have been repeatedly taught by English teachers in schools. They’re famously well-known novels which have already occupied a seat in the most remarkable books category. Their language, the idea of being beamed to different times or getting an understanding of a ‘then’ society are just a few of the benefits that classics bring to the modern day.

However, they’re not always easy to digest especially if you don’t find yourself connected to them – the style doesn’t appeal to you, the characters don’t belong to your own dimension, or the plot doesn’t bring you excitement. Perhaps you’re bored of even hearing about the same books – your parents have kept on rambling on about their favourite high school books or your older friends remember their encounters with this literature. By the time it comes to that great bestseller from Waterstones, you’re no longer interested in reading. 

So, what’s the real point of everyone reading the same books over and over again, what’s the harm a little change and, why not challenge the must-read school list?

Durham University made a step forward eight years ago when it introduced a Harry Potter course where students use JK Rowling’s books as a source to analyse citizenship and prejudice in modern times. It’s about enjoying what we read as much as implementing an up-to-date vibe that’ll make us move forward.

Secondary school teacher Jennifer believes that authors like Shakespeare and Dickens will stick around forever and explains the advantage that classic books bring to the pupils’ development: “It provides children with an insight to a world they may not normally encounter. This might be different cultures, time periods or social groups.

Although pupils may not want to read the same texts, it encourages discussion and opens up the same world to all pupils. Therefore children of all backgrounds get given an opportunity to see a world they might not normally see”, says Jennifer.

Books from the 21st century might be more accessible than old ones, but the teacher argues that both categories should be considered significant for expanding pupils’ literacy skills: “They are all important. For example, understanding how time may change, yet themes remain similar to the modern world.  Or perhaps exploring how language changes and how attitudes change over time. Books like Harry Potter are not really included for GCSE perhaps as a way to encourage students to read books they may not read outside of school. It’s a chance for exposure to a wide literary cannon.”

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Emma Baker, 24, studied English Literature for her A-levels and remains thankful to the teachers and the curriculum which supplied her with classic authors: “I have an appreciation for Shakespeare and read a lot of classic horror for one A-level module – Dracula and Frankenstein were good reads. I don’t think I would’ve looked into the gothic genre or authors like Fitzgerald or Shakespeare if it weren’t for the reading lists provided by the curriculum.”

However, Baker feels that a modern twist is missing from the must-read school list and that today’s authors’ work should be recognised: “It’s great that we appreciate literary genius in the past, and how it reflects on past contexts and societies, but I think we’re missing a modern beat.

I think if you’re having must-read books in schools, it should be books that touch on issues young people face today, like mental health or social media

“Modern authors are writing while influenced by the world those pupils are also living in. I believe they’ll be able to engage and challenge those works much better, with more originality and confidence,” adds Baker.

Recent graduate Natalie Aston, 21, believes that the most important thing is to determine young people to read, no matter if it’s a classic or a brand new book: “I can see the argument for reading the classics in terms of continuing literature legacy, but I’m sure the themes you find in old books are prevalent in non-classics as well. I think if you’re having must-read books in schools, it should be books that touch on issues young people face today, like mental health or social media.”

She’s afraid that classic books might become extinct if not taught in school, so she advocates for a mix of both ancient and modern ones: “If classics stop being taught in English classes, I can see them falling by the wayside as there’s a large group of society who isn’t interested in reading,” adds Aston.

Camille Hanotte, 21, agrees that pupils’ preferences shouldn’t be left unnoticed and that a mixture between must-read classics and their own choices should be implied: “I believe that there shouldn’t be modern books as per say, but that there should be a combination. Books of less popularity should be read, allowing individuals to familiarise with other pieces of literature and dehomogenize the market of the same stories and Chronicles”.

If classics bring us the polished language and a better appreciation of an outdated society, the modern ones come with a new spark in the literature world which is created around the society we currently live in or transposes us into a “what-if” universe. Dickens for the morning, Hawkins for the night – the combination could only improve literacy skills and general knowledge.

No matter what you read, make sure you don’t watch the film first as nothing compares to the smell of fresh book pages on a rainy day.

4th August 2018