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The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bowling Green chapter.

When you hear classic literature, you may have a momentary flash back to your high school classes, reading pieces like Beowulf, Romeo & Juliet and even To Kill a Mockingbird. These texts have been categorized as “classic literature” and have had a huge impact on academia since their respective publications, but an increasingly prevalent conversation lies in trying to determine the value of these stories to today’s readers. With approximately four million new books printed annually — not to mention all of the self-publishing websites and resources — it can be hard to see why it may be worth reading Shakespeare or Shelley. Contemporary works are just as capable of telling a compelling story, so then, to a 21st-century audience, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula really still worth reading over Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight

One of the biggest issues within the area of classics is representation — almost all of the typically “classic” authors and playwrights are white, and a majority are men. If you are seeking a diverse cast of characters, you may not find it in the classics, and if you do, by chance, find what you are looking for, you may very well be disappointed. For the James Baldwins or the Toni Morrisons of classic literature, there seem to be a hundred Kurt Vonneguts and Sylvia Plaths. Consider a work such as Shakespeare’s Othello, which is famously a play that considers race. 

In saying “considers race,” it is not lost that this play is one with a deep history of blackface and other insensitive portrayals of the character Othello, but is Othello racist or is it about race? Many have argued both directions, but as the leading man, Othello’s main flaw is not that he is black, it is his jealousy. The antagonist Iago is the primary purveyor of slurs and anti-black discussion, and it is made abundantly clear to audiences that you are certainly not meant to agree with Iago. That said, Shakespeare’s fascination with race and prejudice, which can be seen across many of his texts — such as in The Merchant of Venice, or even on smaller scales in Titus Andronicus and The Tempest — is one of the less heinous examples of race in the classics.

But what should we do about texts like The Little House on the Prairie, which hold such clear racist tendencies? We get it… “Ma hates Indians.” Or white savior texts, like To Kill A Mockingbird, that we all read in high school? Most simply put, we must deal with them sensitively and clearly. To a student, it may seem like these books are outdated; because they are. These texts are from a time before the now, and they were not written for the future. As an educational tool, the classics are a way for readers to connect with the past, and ensuring that the flaws of these 75, 100 or even 1,000-year-old texts are a part of the discussion is vital.

The reason classics become classics is because of their universality. Students now are able to read a text like Romeo & Juliet and connect with the themes of love, heartbreak, and feuding groups. This is the reason texts like this get adapted into modern versions of themselves, like West Side Story. It is because of their universal themes that classic literature should remain valued, but put most simply, the classic literature we deem as part of that category is not even a fraction of what should be “classic.” When a student from 2023 is able to connect with a text that audiences from hundreds of years prior were just as enamored with, it is a true testament to the ways in which human nature remains the same over time, despite the revolutionary developments that have been made since that time. At our core, we are animals with patterns just like any other. 

This is why it is important to recognize that the classics are extremely valuable tools for connecting with the past, and with the core values and issues of humanity and what it means to be human. Contemporary works are crucial pieces of the educational and scholarly world, but we should never exclusively learn works from a singular moment in time. Hence, the classics do not need to be killed, they need to be paralleled and diversified. There are many contemporary books that work beautifully alongside some of the most famous pieces of classic literature, and there is much value to the comparison. Not to mention the many authors of color and female authors who were writing at the same time as some of history’s most famous writers; they need to be acknowledged and read to the same extent as their white male contemporaries. There are indubitably many works out there that have been continually eschewed by academics for no reason other than the fact that, hundreds of years ago, white men thought that the text was undeserving of recognition due to the race or gender of its author. There are no more new stories to be told, but it is important to learn that who is telling the story, and when, matters immensely.

Hannah Boyle

Bowling Green '24

Hannah is an English literature and theatre major working on her senior year at Bowling Green State University. She loves crime shows, bad romcoms, the color pink, and the Oxford Comma.