Idolizing Classic Literature is So Last Century

We need to change the narrative on what makes a person “well-read”

Jayde Atchison // Contributor
Helen Cai // Illustrator

Lockdown in March ignited the reading flame for many as they searched for hobbies to occupy their time while they waited for their sourdough to rise. Names like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dickens and Fitzgerald repetitively appear on lists that claim them as “must-reads.” Throughout high school, we were given assignments based on white, cisgender, heterosexual-presenting male authors and taught they were the epitome of the written word. For generations, students have been skimming through beaten up copies of Beowulf, Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities. Sure, we may gain some insight into how syntax and writing style have shifted throughout the years, but should we be doomed to idolize these works until the world shrivels up and spits us out? 

I had high hopes for the journey I was to embark on when I was handed a torn-up edition of Catcher in the Rye in Grade Eleven. I had been told it was a pivotal book for teenagers, but to my dismay, I was stuck reading the ramblings of a whiny angst-filled boy as he went through puberty.

Maybe being well-read is just a myth, and we should start discussing if someone is a well-rounded reader.

I couldn’t see what all the hype was about—was I supposed to sympathize with this asshole? I begrudgingly wrote my report and hoped the next “revolutionary” novel was more enthralling. Even when assigned classic literature written by a woman, such as Pride and Prejudice, I didn’t feel like I was learning much other than the importance of marrying before it was too late. 

Hopefully, with the rising demand to publish more works from BIPOC authors, schools across North America will begin to recycle stale books that only serve to remind us how the upper class once lived. Once they rid themselves of these outdated ideas of intelligence, surely they can provide more relevant stories from perspectives outside the white male normative. I took one English course in university in which the reading list included Assata: An Autobiography, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The Spook Who Sat by the Door and other books written by authors of colour. It was the first time I devoured the pages of an assigned book as if my life depended on it. Instead of rolling my eyes throughout Robinson Crusoe, I was engaged and recommending these reads to friends outside of the course. 

I am not saying we should completely abolish this aspect of classic literature, but we do need to start investing in literature that represents the world we live in. Inserting Indigenous, Black, queer, neurodivergent and disabled voices into the classic vernacular and academia will enrich our minds and allow insight into worlds we might otherwise never be exposed to. If we introduce multiple voices into the academic narrative, we might witness a generation that has less racism and xenophobia. This would create a more accurate representation for the students in those communities. Perhaps it is time to integrate books like Know My Name by Chanel Miller to teach teens the importance of consent from a sexual assault survivor—instead of idolizing alcoholic “tortured artist” Hemingway. 

We need to revise what makes a well-read person—how can anyone be considered well-read if they are only sticking to one genre or author? Maybe being well-read is just a myth, and we should start discussing if someone is a well-rounded reader. Broadening our spectrum of authors, genres and time periods should be both encouraged and celebrated. Critics who claim that modern literature is not as beautifully written need to step out from the rock they’re living under and join the real world where authors like Zadie Smith and Toni Morrison exist. 

Throughout the years of reading challenges, I have self-imposed the need to continue reading classic literature. I wanted to be “well-read” and fit into an arbitrary tier of readers. I believed if I didn’t like the books, then I must not be smart enough. I often have a hard time getting through these books, taking three weeks to finish the same number of pages that might otherwise take me four days if it were a modern thriller. The idea that nodding off to century-old literature makes one unintelligent is ridiculous and outdated. We don’t use the same writing structures authors used to, and for some, it is hard to focus on vernacular that isn’t our own. If reading for pleasure is your jam, and you are reading what you enjoy, I think it’s safe to say you are well-read. Someone put time, love and dedication into those pages you’re turning, and that should never be shamed.

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