Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for...

Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

Expert Answers
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Much like modern musicians who often study classical, jazz, and other forms before finding their own medium, or artists who study the masters first, contemporary authors have read and studied the classics.  So, in order to comprehend themes, techniques, etc of modern authors, the reader needs a background in the classics.  How many times, for example, have themes in modern works shared similarities with such classics as Oedipus Rex? As another example, the Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison was greatly influenced by William Faulkner.  Ernest Hemingway felt that Mark Twain's The Adventurers of Huckleberry Finn was the model for all American novels.  Thus, in order to understand modern works, one needs a background in the classics.

Reading the classics is reading history; they are the keys to past human experience.  In English novels, the history of the English language in its beauty is recorded there as well as the history of the ideas and sentiments of the era in which each novel, play, etc. was written.  In world literature, readers learn about the philosophies of cultures past. Certainly, the universality of the themes of classical literature teach their readers many a moral lesson and provide readers with insights into human nature. And, readers can return to the classics when they are older and experience a new apprehension of themes with their experienced minds. For instance, it is fascinating how a character in a novel reread brings to mind a person from one's own life. Without doubt, the value of the classics is immeasurable. 

If the language in the classics seems challenging, the reader should rise to this challenge because, as George Orwell wrote, great thoughts require a great vocabulary. And, great thoughts are the driving force for great minds and a great society. 

mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The former post  (#10) is short-sighted and, honestly, quite smug. It's like insulting the Great Wall of China for not being high enough or the Grand Canyon for not being deep enough. A cheap shot.

Please show some respect for the classics and all Seven Wonders of the World.

Classics can't be blamed for being classics, and their language can't be blamed for being archaic.  The classics helped build the language you now speak.  And classics aren't classics because someone arbitrarily appointed them as such.

Classics are classics because they have survived.  Countless other books, poems, and plays have been destroyed, burned, not re-printed, or voted off the island due to time, revolution, war, lack of funding, or--like the above post (#10)--bad logic and common language.

In the literary survival of the fittest, Romeo and Juliet is the language of the mighty. It is a survivor, a superior breed of species that knows how to live on.  It is read, taught, staged, recorded, translated, reviewed, and adapted.  It is so full of life that it will never become extinct or irrelevant.  When English-speaking cultures bury time capsules or launch probes into apace, they include Romeo and Juliet (or some other play by Shakespeare).  We want to use the language of the mighty to impress the universe.

Romeo and Juliet will be read, taught, and staged long after you, this forum, this website, and the books on your shelf will are gobbled up by time and reduced to esoteric footnotes.

Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I do believe that you will find different answers to such a question.  Part of this has become due to the fact that reading the classics has become part of the academy's "culture wars" between the left and the right, and the stain of politicizing the issue has filtered throughout the discourse.  There is not much one can do to change that, but understanding it can help facilitate past it.  Indeed, I think that reading the classics, or what one defines as "the classics," can be beneficial.  I think that teachers/ professors have to take conscious strides in being able to thematically analyze with students what makes a particular work worthy of being called a "classic."  This type of analysis allows us to understand and critique literature as thinking individuals as opposed to doing so in a manner of zealots with sacred cows.  Teachers have to use discretion with how they are going to teach literature such as "the classics" to their students and how to build bridges between their students and these examples of literature.  This would be where the difficulty piece is incorporated.  Teachers have to be mindful that with challenging work comes a new set of teaching challenges and one cannot assign "classics" simply for the sake of doing so, but rather be willing and open (especially with the less mature reader) to ensure that there is a complete immersion between teacher, student, and literature to make sure greater understanding of each emerges.

livetoteach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As the prior posts suggest, there is actually much debate about what even makes an author or book a "classic."  In my view, calling a work a classic is necessarily subjective - dependent on what the reader (or group of readers that constitutes a culture - often limited to a country, as in "American literature") believes will be of value to future readers.  Should a "classic" discuss certain subjects (love, war, politics), in what depth or manner, and in which form of language (verse, as in poetry; the structure of a novel or short story; etc.)?  Because these judgments change with time, the books readers believe are classics also change.  At the high school level, decisions about which books are "must reads" for students are also necessarily influenced by, for better or worse, standardized exams; teachers want you to be familiar with at least those books you'll likely be tested on, for the SATs, etc.

When I'm faced with assigning a book, "classic" or not, that is inaccessible to students today - because its use of language doesn't conform to modern usage or its references are historically obscure - I try to include as much historical background as possible, while discussing the book in class.  There are many media sources now that can help bring a book to life in ways you might not imagine, websites like PAL and more films adapted from books - ones set in times and places both near to and remote from your own - than can be mentioned.

clairewait eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As someone who does not teach literature, I do not think that the classics are worth it, even though I have read many of them.  I do not think that Romeo and Juliet, for example, has anything more to say about human nature than does any modernization of the story that is more accessible.  So why slog through the archaic language when you do not have to.  No one today is going to say "but soft" or say that someone is a "jewel in an Ethiop's ear" so it's not as if you need to read that stuff to enhance your vocabulary.

The classics are classics because someone decided long ago that they were and everyone else has fallen in line...

with as much respect as I can muster - this is the attitude that reinforces why we should continue to read and teach the classics.  High school teachers are so absorbed in (and largely numb to) this student response that we often forget it is probably the opinion of most of the adults in the world as well.  Sad.

I also agree with Amy.

Even as a teacher though - I will say - I only get something out of the classics when I study them with others... the beauty of good literature is that it requires thought and digestion - which is best done when we can "eat and digest" together.

shaketeach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the reasons that people study the classics is that the classics address all the major ideas of humanity since the beginning of written communication. 

A knowledge of the classics become a common language between countries and culture.  Literary allusions are a wonderful example of this.  It doesn't matter where or when one calls somebody else a Romeo, it is understood.

Is the language often difficult?  Perhaps but anything worth knowing is often a challenge.  Of course there are stories today that say the same things and in more comprehensable language but it is often a simplification of the classics.

The classics inspire other works of art.  For example the plays of Shakespeare have been turned into ballets and operas.

In the arts, it is necessary to study the classics because they offer the greatest artistic challenges.  Anything else becomes easier in that area of the arts.  

Personally, I enjoy a good challenge so I read the classics to stretch my mind.  When I want mind garbage, there is plenty of it out there.       

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Absolutely!  If we as a society quit reading difficult texts, it is just one more step in the dumbing down of America!  In this high-tech, fast-paced society, if it takes longer to do than texting or instant messaging, no one seems to want to do it.  Poppycock!  We must take time to read, and to read pieces of substance.  Research proves that the more one reads, the smarter one is...simply because through reading, we are exposed to more words and language (thus, we learn vocabulary and writing skills), we learn about life, we learn about other places, and we learn about ourselves (what would I do if I were in this situation?  Do I agree or disagree with this statement?  Why? What are my morals, values, and where do I fit into society?), we also learn about the beauty of language.  So much of what is written today (LOL) is so brief and emotionless that we lose the ability to construct a beautiful sentence.  I love Shakespeare for that very reason, but Barbara Kingsolver also has this gift. 

brettd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It's a matter of opinion, I suppose, what the value of a classical education is.  But one thing about those classic stories, some of them are timeless, relevant at any age, in any time frame.  They are a window into what literature was at the time, and what life was like at the time (you've heard that art imitates life).  Some of them are difficult to digest, surely.  I had a heck of a time with Moby Dick and some of Shakespeare's works.  But it also made me think, taught me how to appreciate literature and did wonders for my vocabulary.  English tends to be more pure in the older literature, where our modern dialect has lost something in the text message translation.

So I would say yes, there is certainly value to reading the classics, with exceptions.  Some literature is merely taught because it is educational tradition and not based on the merits of the story itself.  Again, in my opinion.

kmcappello eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a fascinating debate, but I feel like a very important point has not yet been made.  Though the "classics" do tend to be timeless, and have universal themes, historically they have not been very inclusive.  Classic reading lists are heavily white and male in authorship, which leaves a huge gap in a reader's experience and understanding.

I understand that this is changing, and that the definition of a "classic" can be fluid from one day to the next, which I am thankful for.  Zora Neale Hurston, for instance, was once relegated to obscurity before Alice Walker reminded the literary community of her genius.  Now she is firmly in the "classic" zone. But I agree with #23 that a mix of both classic and contemporary well-written and well-loved books can be most beneficial to student-readers.

carolkaz34 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

I believe wholeheartedly that there is value in reading “the classics.”  I find that these are the books that students do not pick up on their own, but they are necessary to further their educations for many reasons including vocabulary development, critical thinking, and learning about different cultures and different time periods.  I also concur with others who have posted; just as an artist improves his or her art by studying the masters, so the reader improves his or her critical thinking and reading by stretching to read and understand these classic pieces.

marbar57 eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

Is there value in reading the classics, even though they are often more difficult for modern audiences to read?

  I believe there is great value in reading the classics!  For one thing, the language is often sublime and exquisite and shows a greater depth and degree of intellect on the part of the author. The underlying theme and message of the classics is not always evident and requires a great deal of effort to uncover or unravel, making for great study and exertion on the part of the student.  After wrestling a classic one has a peculiar sensation of having fought a battle and won!

lynn30k eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Of course! As I tell my students, works are considered "classics" for a reason. They have enduring things to say about humanity and thought--even if the details are no longer current. They help us to understand how some things never change, and how some things do. Romeo and Juliet still speaks to how young love can feel overwhelming, even if the way children are raised has changed. The trick, I think, is in figuring out what current works will become classics. There is value in reading things that will NOT attain that status, though; I read some of the works that are popular with my students, just to make sure I am aware of what is affecting their thoughts.

burbina eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I definitely think it's good for high school students to be exposed to classical literature.  It exposes them to a different form of "language," and gives them skills to figure out how to interpret writings that aren't familiar to them.  I do not, however, think that classical literature is ALL they should be exposed to.  They need to have a variety of literature exposure, otherwise they'll get bored and you as a teacher will lose them.  As teachers, we want them to love reading, but we can't force them.  Exposing them to a variety of literature they wouldn't expose themselves to gives them a greater opportunity to experience the "love" of literature.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As someone who does not teach literature, I do not think that the classics are worth it, even though I have read many of them.  I do not think that Romeo and Juliet, for example, has anything more to say about human nature than does any modernization of the story that is more accessible.  So why slog through the archaic language when you do not have to.  No one today is going to say "but soft" or say that someone is a "jewel in an Ethiop's ear" so it's not as if you need to read that stuff to enhance your vocabulary.

The classics are classics because someone decided long ago that they were and everyone else has fallen in line...

accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Wow, pohnpei397 you are being contraversial! I do agree that we might not "use" some of Shakespeare's more antiquated vocabulary but I do believe there is value in being able to handle, process and understand such vocabulary even if we never use it in spoken dialogue - it pays to enrich your word power after all! Also, there are a number of quotations from Shakespeare and other authors that are incredibly meaningful and valuable for us in general and provide helpful "stepping stones" for us in life. Therefore I do believe it is important to "wade through" some of the more challenging texts.

ajmchugh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I absolutely love teaching what many would label as "the classics."  After all, they got put into that category for a reason, yes?  I think there's something to be said for being familiar with works of literature that people across the world know.  I always tell my students that while they might not like a particular work of literature, reading it (or studying anything at all, for that matter) makes them smarter.  And being able to hold an intelligent conversation about works that can be labeled as classics helps people to relate to others on what can be an intimate, intellectual level. 

Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Wow.  It's been a while since I checked this discussion, and I find myself encouraged by both the students and the teachers who agree with me that there is worth in reading something that reflects human nature at its best and worst, represents the language and culture of the time, stretches our language and vocabulary skills, and stands the test of time.  What great words of wisdom and insight from everyone, not just those who agree with me; for no discussion is compete without all sides being represented.  Thanks so much for sharing!

scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

My students often ask me about this when it comes to Shakespeare, and while I discuss his universal themes and what makes a classic a classic, the argument that is often most convincing to them is that reading the classics is exercise for the brain.  Just as student athletes condition for various sports or musicians spend time practicing scales and learning theory, reading challenging works helps increase students' critical thinking skills and reasoning.

besure77 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I agree with amy-lepore. I think reading classical text is necessary and essential. Everybody these days (especially kids) want everything to be quicker and easier. I believe that reading the classics is great for many reasons. Reading increases intelligence. This is especially true for classical reading. It exposes us to new ways of writing, thus thinking outside the box.

udonbutterfly | Student

There is certainly more value in reading the classics. It's a great way to analyze vernacular as well as past time culture. It enables one to realize the evolution or lack of evolution in society. I like the quote that the only way in order to change the future is to become aware and knowledgeable about the past. With classic reading you really are able to see how writing styles, syntax, creativity has changed throughout centuries.

user437318 | Student

Reading the classics is not only enjoyable, but it also shows what life was like in the past, both historically and culturally. Studying the classics also reveals to modern readers that many of the modern works we see today are based on the classics.

Classics show that life in the past was very different from today, as well as what many writers liked to write about. A lot of pre-modern stories star knights and heroes, and tell of epic adventures. Modern stories are more based on future events, such as "The Hunger Games", as well as fantasy, like "Harry Potter". Reading the classics shows how literature changed over a period of time.

Reading the classics also reveals how much they have influenced modern literature. Take William Shakespeare's works for example. "Romeo and Juliet" heavily influenced "Twilight", and Disney's "The Lion King" is based on Shakespeare's "Hamlet." These are only just a few, but take the main story of any piece of modern work, and you will probably find that it shares some similarity with an older story.

Although understanding the classics might be difficult, reading them is valuable because they show what life was like in the past, how they influenced modern literature, and how much literature has changed over time. 

gradgrind | Student

It might be useful to distinguish between "classic" (meaning "canonical works") and "classical" (meaning ancient Greek and Roman texts). First, this will make the classicists and rhetoricians happy. Second, it forces us to ask more questions:

  • What makes a text "classic?"
  • Who decides?
  • How does a culture/language form a canon?

It is indeed possible to read all "the classics." Check out the GRE English Lit reading list. :) As in any endeavor, reading has its own rewards, which are far too numerous to list, but which come from reading books which have withstood critical scrutiny and the test of time.

In plain English: People forget crappy writing. Good writing sticks around because people learn from it. If you find a book boring, that's because you don't understand it yet. Keep trying. Not understanding  something doesn't erase its value. In fact, it increases it, because you will be at the mercy of people who do understand it--those who took the time to work through the book and who came out smarter on the other side.

scbannerman | Student

Not reading as much classic literature is the reason why it is more difficult for the modern reader. Were we to study as much of the classic canon as previous generations, our ability to comprehend words more than two syllables long would not be such a challenge. We actually do "slog" through the classics because we have a shorter attention span and don't appreciate the beauty of archaic language. Not to make a stab at modern literature. It has its value, too. But I'm a big advocate of holding onto the traditional and long lasting. To me, it's like preferring a solid piece of 19th century furniture that will last another hundred years to a metal fold-up chair. So yes, let's please keep the classics. There's a whole separate world out there in classic literature, why spend our entire literary life in the here and now that we already live in. Don't let big words scare you away from time travelling.

vonn | Student

The reasons in reading classic books are:

1. reflects the social milieu of the character

2. focus on one values and provide great emphasis on it

3. use literary devices that are unique and greatly strengthen its          content

4. style of writing is authentic, smooth and sense of unity of paragraphs to paragraphs

5. the situation is a replica on character's life and experience

6. it describes the situation and the period of  the writer

7. it is recognize,criticize and appreciate by most of the readers and league of critiques

lovesbooks123 | Student

As a student, I believe that there is merit in reading classics. True it is hard to get past some of the old writing styles, vocabulary and vernacular, there are life lessons within these texts that are, as someone mentioned above, timeless, and applicable.

And regardless of the lessons one learns, it fascinating to look into how people saw the world during older times. Or the things that were appropriate in society. Or how forward thinking author's were.


ktruth327 | Student

Opinions on the importance of literature aside, as a recent B.A. and a more recent M.A. graduate in Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, I believe my post will be very helpful if I answer this question based upon my collegiate experience.

YES, the classics are a crucial part of all modern literature, as the allegories and archetypes established by them are still strong and alive in the modern literature that we study today (even if the classic is only a "classic" because someone ushered it in as such.) One of the most important aspects of a piece of literature, I have found, is to understand the author and the society in which the author lived and wrote- the classics rose to the top because they are the metaphorical cream of the social setting from which they sprang forth. In this sense, the themes and topics of modern literature can and should be compared to classical literature as we are truly examining literature because it is the truest indication of the human experience.

With that being said, NO!- there is no reason to read ALL the classics from cover to cover. Knowing and understanding the themes are extremely important, but resources like eNotes and Wikipedia can often synthesize 600 lenghty pages of something like Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, and offer students the most important themes and topics. In college, time must be used wisely. It is VITAL to use online resources to KNOW the classics without spending a year reading them.

indycar | Student

Definitely! If not to recognise the evolution of literature, then at least to marvel at how values inherent in a century old text, still ring true in modern society. Without classic literature, we'd be a slave to pure factual history, then we wouldn't know about social backlashes, movements and transitions that shaped culture as we know it today!

murphy1441 | Student

I teach British Literature, and we start with the oldest works written in the English language (notably Beowulf), some of which are at least a thousand years old.  I find many of my college students may initially resist reading these texts, but what we inevitably find as we delve more deeply into the characters and their lives/environments is just how little human nature has or can change.  Pride, love, envy, honor:  these are just a few of the topics for discussion contained in Beowulf, which is just one work to be studied out of a broad canon.

Another reason I particularly enjoy teaching what many consider "classic" literature is that it becomes a window onto other times.  Human nature may not change, but cultural rules and mores certainly evolve.  The study of classic literature aids in understanding of other disciplines like psychology, sociology, religion, and history.  I have learned more about history in literature classes than I ever have in a history classroom!

Some of the works may contain language that makes them appear less accessible on the surface, but once my students discover what the texts have to offer, the vocabulary and sentence structure becomes a minor hurdle, at best.

dalalm | Student

I am a foreigner myself, and through my time in school I was never encouraged to read an english novel. When I graduated from college and started reading, I realised that I missed many opportunities of reading classic masterpieces. People who study classics at school don't know how lucky they are. They have teachers who are specialized and help them to overcome any difficulty facing them.

I might find some difficulty in the language, but step by step I will improve and hope someday to read and understand Shakespear.

thedarklady | Student

Personally, i feel that there is a need to read the classics, the reason being, although it was written long time ago, the magic of it is that it actually reflects our modern society now! Reading classics not only let us understand the conventions of the past, but it also surfaces parallel ideas and themes in our modren society. For instance, when you read William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', the theme of love is very prominent, and some aspects of love like mutual love and irrational love surfaces, and has a link to our modern society.

For fellow thespians like me, classics is like our life! Les Miserables, A tale of Two Cities, Twelvth Night, Midsummer Night's Dream, and loads more!

When reading classics, we often ask ourselves questions that is extremely thought-provoking, and this also increases our ablility to give insight into our personal response when writing essays! :)

No matter what,the classics is a form of art and literature. If the society now do not get in touch with arts and literature, then how can the people be well-learned and how can our society be elegant?

ramd | Student

There sure is...The classics open your mind to a world different from the present.  These works bring out a different mindset and the challenge is really to bring yourself into that horizon, pretty much in what Hans Georg Gadamer calls "the fusion of horizons."  Let the classics not just be a text of the past. Breathe life into these works!

atonement | Student


@pohnpei397 Shakespeare himself would disapprove of reading theatrical texts that should be actually be watched. In my opinion analysing the performance of a text is more important than merely reading ‘Romeo and Juliet’ this of course shows that there is a need to change the way classics are studied in schools. Yes the literary canon is elitist at times but if we as readers show support to the books we love they may become classics.

The classics are important to read but not just for the sake of reading. As a teenager the affect that ‘Jane Eyre’ had on me was profound the same way ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ affects scores of teens every year. That is not to say that reading is always a profound experience but all modern books are in some way or the other influenced by the classics. Who has not heard of Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr Darcy, Big Brother, Ebenezer Scrooge etc. The least we can do for this rich literary heritage is pay homage to it by reading what is has to offer.

We may even enjoy it!

kc4u | Student

This is the age-old classic-bestseller debate which also underpins the questions about the timeless universality of art or literature and issues like the high-art low-art split.

Woolf had once said that great art is always contemporary and if we are looking at period pieces, there is a need to study the historical milieu from which the literary work is born and a need to understand the linguistic structures of the time, which may change and differ, creating difficulties.

The postmodern age however is all about de-elitizing art and blurring the distinctions between high art and popular art. Today we are witnessing newer ways of rendering high art into the popular realm. No Fear Shakespeare editions of Shakespeare's plays in a simplified modern English, good or bad, are an example of this trend.