As a college advisor, I regularly check in with my students about summer reading lists or heavy reading for lit classes during the school year. As soon as they hear they are being assigned to read a “classic,” their eyes glaze over. “Classic,” to them, just means “old,” and “old” is never fun, interesting or relevant.
What I remind them – and now am sharing with you – is that books are called “classics” because decades or even centuries have passed since they were published, and readers still love them. Still connect to them. Still rent the DVDs of them then read the book yet again. Classics are fantastic stories that are fun to experience over and over.
Even better, beyond their time-tested “good times” value, here are three entirely self-serving reasons to read the classics BEFORE they ever show up on an assignment list:
Insane personal validation. Any experience you have had, good or bad, has been brought to brilliant life in a classic. Wildly in love with someone who doesn’t know you’re alive? Crack open Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. This is also a good read if you’ve ever had a crush on someone who is way out of your league or if you’re frustrated because you don’t have the same spending money as some of the richer kids in school. From political engagement to friendships in jeopardy to escaping controlling families, the classics let you know that you aren’t the first person to go through love, pain, jealousy or joy, and you won’t be the last. Your kids will, when you make THEM read your favorite books.
Staying culturally hip. Nearly every 30-40something in the U.S. instantly knows the implied injustice behind yelling “No soup for you!” And every 10-20something knows the funny bravado of brushing a “hater” off of your shoulders like so much dandruff or dust. But what we all share across the generations are comfortable classical references from reading the great books. Did you just arrive in a crazy new place with strange rules and people that make you feel unsafe and uncertain? Congratulations, Alice, you just “fell down the rabbit hole” (Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Are you in a no-win situation where all of the choices cancel each other out and leave you right where you started? You’re stuck in “a Catch-22” (Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). You know what? This is another blog post entirely. Look for that link soon!
Wildly expanding your world. If all you know of the world is your immediate neighborhood, the place your grandparents live and what you see on reality TV shows (I used to produce those!), here’s some great news. Reading the classics seriously ramps up what you know about the world AND how you might deal with some of the crazy choices you’re about to face. The collective works of Alexandre Dumas alone will get you through first love, a broken heart, working with friends, betrayal, forgiveness and keeping tough promises. And unlike those heroes, you don’t have to deal with any of that stuff wearing a corset or a cape.
All right, I promised you a list, so here it is, with some final thoughts that follow. Note: THIS IS NOT (drumroll) “THE DEFINITIVE LIST OF CLASSICS” (there are hundreds more). It’s just one unranked list of seven diverse stories that I believe will captivate you:
- To Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee) – being “the outsider” in a small-minded community…who will pay the biggest price for speaking up or trying to fit in? (if you like this, add The Grapes of Wrath)
- The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas) – first romance, shocking betrayal and living very large, indeed…can money buy love or only revenge? (if you like this, add The Three Musketeers)
- Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë) – crazy romance, crushing heartbreak…so how does it end? (If you like this, add Jane Eyre)
- Invisible Man (Carter G. Woodson) – entrenched racial injustice from college to career…will he give in or finally get over? (if you like this, add Native Son)
- A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens) – this is the extreme “haves vs. have-nots” at war with themselves and each other…so who ultimately “wins”? (If you like this, add Oliver Twist)
- 1984 (George Orwell) – rampant government intrusion and control over its passive citizens…did any of its predictions actually come true? (If you like this, add Brave New World)
- Little Women (Louisa May Alcott) – sibling struggles in a single-parent household (Dad’s off at war)…will a tomboy stick to her dreams or give in to what the world expects of her? (If you like this, add Pride and Prejudice).
Three final thoughts as you jump into classic novels. First, just roll with the language, even if it feels unfamiliar at first. Stay focused on the thrilling story. Second, if some of the values seem shocking or outdated, don’t get mad – get aware. This was how the world once was and may still be. History doesn’t have to make you feel good, but it will help you understand some of what you still see in a new way. Third, don’t read these books in secret! Let a parent or teacher or pastor know so you have someone to dish with during and after. Trust me, you’ll want to talk about them.
I really hope you enjoy this list, that you post your thoughts about the books here, that you post your own suggested readings and that, no matter what, you keep reading. You’ll be so glad you did in college throughout freshman English, over lunch in the dorm dining hall, and in job interviews (and on dates) a few years from now. The classics connect you to the common cultural language of the world. Otherwise, it’s “No soup for you!”
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As always, share your own recommendations and experiences below!
DMA is the CEO of The CLIC, the revolutionary new site where students can powerfully plan for college and institutions can effortlessly recruit students from a single home page in our FREE interactive network. CLIC students can connect to college matches, scholarship searches, college access programs and the nation’s first master calendar of all college-related deadlines and events, with streaming video tips and much more, at www.theclic.net.