To read or not to read? Such unfairness exists in classic literature. Like Hamlet’s query, this one begs the knowledge of whether the pain of reading a classic is greater than the pain of never having read the classics. The summer prior to my freshman year at the UofA I received a required reading list and assigned myself the task of reading the classics. I reasoned that I had not read enough of them in high school and that it would be a good idea to be familiar with as many of them as possible. My reading continued well into the school year. I hit a low point when a friend asked me what I thought about my current selection, Moby Dick. I answered, “When does the bit about the fish end?” My pal changed the subject. I never finished the novel.

Classic Literature

Face it, you aren’t going to like every book you read. And anyway, why should you bother with classic literature in this day and age? Stories speak to the time in which they take place and you may not be in that place. Again my freshman year, my older boyfriend gave me The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. I tried multiple times to read and connect with the work but couldn’t. Years later, in my 30s, I tried again. Success! The work became a cornerstone in my belief system and I went on to read all of Peck’s works.

Books connect with us on different levels and at different times in our lives. Is this alone a reason to read the classics? Some would say no. One argument centers specifically on female role models and female representation in classic literature. Another claims that classics tend to be romantic in nature and thus not applicable to the modern world. Classic literature is bereft of progressive role models with their withering sexism, rampant racism and vapid empty characters. These works and characters are vague, bland or ridiculous, and the reader has to search too hard for meaning. These works have no educational value in modern times and one would be better served to read actual historical documents. Actual journals, diaries and memoirs are stark and truthful representations of the reality of the times. Maybe.

Classics are part of the puzzle of history. They are representative of a writing style even when they are romanticized versions of the era. Why self censor hundreds of years worth of history and literature? Conventional wisdom goes that the classics are the underpinning of a well rounded individual and part of being a cultured and educated person. How can one know what “good” is without having an example of literary greatness? To know the classics is to understand modern literature, its references and origins.

The debate is larger than dedicated readers would expect. One would think a highbrow, literary institution like Bookmans would be pro-classics and one would be right. Obviously we love for people to read. Anything. Any time. For any reason. And, hey, you like what you like, right? If one classic doesn’t speak to you, try another or try it again in a few years. Classic literature will always be among us to read and enjoy, or not. As far as we are concerned, that is the most important part.

Tell us what YOU think. What was your favorite classic or least favorite? What classic book changed for you over time? Have you given up on classic literature? Discuss with us or your book club — or us because we really like talking about books.