One way for writers to expand their horizons, gain inspiration, and hone their craft is by reading works of classic literature. While there are the staple classics we all at least know about, there are many lesser known classic books that can offer unique, diverse perspectives, for both writers and non-writers.
Let’s look at the benefits of reading classic books, then explore a list of some less popular classic literature you might want to check out!
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What is a classic book?
A classic book is a work of literature that, for whatever reason, has stood the test of time and continues to be a widely read and appreciated book by readers from a wide range of generations and cultures. Classic books are usually considered high quality literature with dynamic characters, complex plots, and rich themes that set them apart from typical, modern works of fiction.
Books such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte are considered classic literature.
Classic books usually deal with universal themes, which is something that helps their timeless appeal—love, human nature, morality, mortality, the meaning of life, etc etc etc.
Often, classic books make up the majority of reading lists for compulsory education and higher education literature classes. They are broken down and studied in order to teach reading comprehension, writing, and various areas of historical academia.
Benefits of reading classic books
Reading classic literature has many benefits, especially for writers who want to learn more about craft. Here are just a few reasons you might want to drop a few more classics onto your reading list.
1. Improved language skills
Classic literature tends to utilize complex vocabulary and sentence structure, which can help readers expand their vocabulary and writing skill. As a kid, I learned a lot of my Big Words from Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery.
2. Increased cultural understanding
Classic literature also provides insight into history, culture, and values from different societies, giving readers a better understanding and appreciation of history and the current world. Reading historic fiction set in a real place before visiting the place can add a layer of appreciation visitors wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, upon visiting the ruins of Bath, Somerset, I read Persuasion and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and having the insight from when the Roman baths were actually utilized made the experience much richer and more tangible.
3. See the origin of many styles and cliches
Cliches and tropes weren’t always that! At some point, every one of them was an original idea. Reading classic literature can give writers insights into how the very first iterations of classic tropes came about.
4. Enhanced critical thinking
Because classic books often become classic due to their complex moral and ethical dilemmas, reading them can encourage consumers to think critically and perhaps consider new perspectives.
5. Improved creativity
Reading classic pieces is often a wonderful way to spark creativity. Whether in a more general sense, or something very literal, like retelling a fairytale.
6. Learn the “rules”
Studying the history of writing and where we’ve already been with it as an art form can help inform future themes and styles of writing. Reading classic literature is helpful for building a foundation of knowledge in order to move forward with a more dynamic understanding. Essentially, read what has already been done so you’re not reinventing the wheel and can focus on forging new paths with your own art.
11 Classic books for your reading list
Now that we know the benefits of reading classic literature, let’s look at some strong books to add to your reading list that you may have not read before.
1. The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
This 17th-century book is a comprehensive exploration of melancholy, a condition that was believed to cause various mental and physical illnesses. It is often cited as an influence on writers like Samuel Johnson and Laurence Sterne.
2. The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon
This is a 10th-century Japanese collection of anecdotes on life at court, cited as an influence on Virgina Woolf, among other writers.
3. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki
This is a mysterious and complex work that blends elements of gothic, orientalist, and picaresque genres.
4. The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein
The Making of Americans is a challenging, experimental exploration of American culture and identity in the early 20th-century. It is often referenced as a great influence on American culturist writers like Hemingway, Faulkner, and James Joyce.
5. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
This novel is a playful, experimental examination of gender and identity. It’s about a nobleman who lives for centuries, experiencing both male and female identities. It’s often cited as an influence on writers like Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith.
6. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
This 1937 piece by African American writer, Hurston, is a powerful exploration of the experience of a young woman in the rural South, said to have greatly influenced the amazing works of writers such as Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.
7. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
This sprawling family saga was written by Chilean, Allende, and explores the experiences of several generations of a Latin American family.
8. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
This 1933 book is a fictionalized autobiography of Stein’s life partner, Alice B. Toklas. It offers a humorous and unique perspective on life as an expatriate in Paris during the early 20th century, including portraits of many leading figures of the modernist movement, like Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway.
9. The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal
This novel was quite a groundbreaking exploration of male homosexuality. It tells the story of a young man and his quest to find love despite the social and psychological obstacles he must overcome to reach it. This book is often cited as influencing writers like James Baldwin and Edmund White.
10. Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde
This 1982 memoir tells the story of a lesbian African American in New York City during the 1950s. As you can imagine, it is a mildly harrowing tale and a powerful exploration of race, sexuality, and intersectional identity. This is another piece cited as an influence on the amazing Toni Morrison.
11. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
If you have never heard of this book, you have probably heard of its film adaptation, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett as Carol and Rooney Mara as her love interest, Therese. The 1952 novel tells the story of a young woman falling in love with an older, married woman. And of course, with the “falling in,” we get the equally ferocious “falling out.” This story is cited as an influence on writers Jeanette Winterson, Sarah Waters, and others.
Reading classic books should be considered an essential piece of any writer’s education. We have to know where we’ve been to fully understand where we’re going. Immersing ourselves in the work of the greats who have come before can prepare us to perhaps one day take our place amongst them.
Whether you’re looking to explore the depths of human experience wildly different from your own, learn new styles and techniques, or simply expand your literary knowledge, there is a classic book out there for you. Try one from this list, then come back and let us know what you thought!