C is for classics and why I think they can put people off books

Author: Anne

Date Published: May 15th 2017, 11:05pm

Having had to check the current exam syllabus for English I despair at what we are making our young people read at 14, 15 and 16. Unless they are enthusiastic readers you are risking put them off books for life by the irrelevance of the choices to their every day life. I wrote the bog below some time ago but it still reflects my views ...


A classic is a book that has stood the test of time – often they are Victorian novels. Authors of these novels include Charles Dickens, George Elliot, Thomas Hardy, Mrs Gaskell, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters and Jane Austen. We hold classic novels up as the best written in the history of books and they feature in school and university courses. There is an expectation that educated and cultured people will have read many of these novels and references to them are often made in other books with the assumption that they will need no explanation. Modern versions of them are written and there are many films and TV series – usually because they are out of copyright.

Because I have studied English Literature at school and university and also because I am a voracious reader I have read many, although certainly not all, of the books we would consider to be classics but I do feel that they have been held up to be great at the expense of readability or relevance in the current day. My fourteen year old son, for example, was required to read “Jane Eyre” as part of his GCSE course. He had no particular interest in books or reading and I could think of absolutely nothing in the book that was of any relevance to him at all. I know of other people who were required to read these books at a young age and also found them completely off-putting.

I really wonder how far the majority of people need to know the classic books or even why we place them on such a pedestal. If you want to illustrate the art of storytelling or excellent use of English language then there are more modern, and shorter, books which might perhaps achieve the same result. Only those studying the history of English literature really need to read and understand the Victorian novels that we regard as exceptional.

My reading diet includes very few of the great classics except for my annual rereading of Jane Austen’s output. I have read, however, many of the books written in the last century which we also are beginning to think of as modern classics – “Brideshead Revisited”, “Birdsong”, “Catch 22”, “Beloved”, and so on. I really hope that people will read and enjoy these books because they want to and that they won’t become the books which children are forced to read and which many adults will pretend that they have read in order to appear cultured.