Why are the classics called the classics? What sets them apart from the books written today?
‘The classics’ can easily set the modern reader groaning at the very thought. Long, boring books, full of huge long paragraphs and complicated words and weird, confusing phrasing.
These books can be viewed so badly, that people can say they hate the classics without even having read them.
I can see where those readers are coming from. I’m all for the short paragraphs and lots of action that’s commonly found in modern fiction. However, I still make a point of reading classics.
The classics still have plenty to teach us—they’re not unrelated to writing today.
Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. What do they have to teach us? Why should we be reading their works?
1: They are the roots of modern fiction
The origin story of all the books written today is here. If you’re trying to write a dystopian novel, shouldn’t you read the very roots of where the genre came from? Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four. There’s novels out there that started modern fiction as we know it, and there’s so much we can learn from those novels.
2: The classic authors were masters of theme
If there’s one thing that the classic authors were amazing at—it was theme. Some of them had slightly more iffy story lines, some had boring sections, but in general the classics are huge, deep examples of well-crafted themes. The authors knew what was important, and they studied and wrote and learned to do it well.
A lot of modern authors could take a hint from these guys and put a little more meaning into their stories.
3: The more you read, the more you know
If you only read contemporary fantasy (for example), you’re going to end up with a small-minded view of fiction. But if you read all the genres you are so much better equipped to write any one of them, than if you’d only read a narrow selection.
‘All the genres’ includes classics. If you only read modern books you won’t get to see the charm and beauty that is in these older books.
4: The classics are actually good stories
One of my favourite classics is The Three Musketeers. Sword fights, witty dialogue, true love, poison, revenge. The story itself captivated me, despite the older writing style.
Fahrenheit 451 was the same—unique, intriguing, and definitely worth reading just for the story. AND the fact that Ray Bradbury wrote the entire novel in NINE. DAYS. That’s better than my NaNoWriMo record. 😯
If you pass off these novels as ‘boring’ and ‘too old’ before you even try them, you’re missing out on the stories they have to offer.
5: A Unique Point of View
I’m not talking about the character’s POV here, I’m talking about the view from the author. They lived in the same world as us, but there was a lot of different things. Culture and rules and etiquette. Different than what today’s authors have to offer, simply because we didn’t experience those time periods that the authors of the classics were writing from.
I enjoy the Percy Jackson series, but Rick Riordan very clearly comes from this modern age. I know about this culture. I know about these political ideas. But with an older book I haven’t experienced that age personally. It’s like a little window into the thoughts and ideas and morals of that time. As a history nerd, I really enjoy that side of these books.
Reading the classics shouldn’t be a thing of the past. As writers, we need to read them and learn from them. As readers, we need to read them and learn from them.
Because the theme and writing style can teach us new things, and expanding reading horizons and growing vocabulary and understanding is always a good thing. Read these books so you can appreciate the roots of today’s fiction.
Even if they can be a little boring sometimes. 😉
Your turn! Have you read many classics? What’s your favourite ‘old book’? Do you prefer short paragraphs or long, flowy paragraphs?