“Classic” vs. old

I love so-called “classic” books, by which I mean books that have transcended their immediate historical moment and continued to have important meaning for generations to come. As with all books, classics are not perfect, and they often have complicated histories and/or contexts for their readers to grapple with, some more than others

But they often also have sustained through time because they have quality language, address important themes, and employ powerful story-telling. Additionally, true classics can be important to read because of their ongoing cultural currency and history of influence on other works.

I read many such books with my children and on my own as well.

However, it is important to note here that not all old books are classics. And, books with those classic qualities continue to be written, though they might not have achieved classic status yet. Therefore, I think it is critical to remember that old is not always better when it comes to our reading lives with our children.

Perhaps because the educator Charlotte Mason herself lived in the 19th century, and therefore recommended books written during or prior to her era, some parts of the Charlotte Mason homeschooling world seems to have mistakenly equated older books with living books or classics. There is no reason to think that Charlotte Mason would have ever imagined that only books from her particular era (or older) would be privileged over contemporary books of equal (or superior) value. Yet, in the world of online homeschooling book lists and Charlotte Mason curricula, I have seen many older previously out-of-print books being published again and promoted as “classics.” In my own experience of reading these books, I have become doubtful about the quality of all of them. It seems to me that many of them stopped being published because they didn’t actually have the qualities that define classics. And many of them contain information, stories or depictions that are out-of-date or highly problematic for a 21st century reader.

So, how does one find true classics rather than falling into the trap of privileging old over new? When I wade through suggested book lists for ideas, I look for books that have continued to be published since their original release. Often the true classics are the books that if you walk into a used bookstore, you would find multiple editions from different publishers on the shelf. If it is a book in translation, it is often available in many translations as well. Several mainstream book publishers have even released lines of carefully selected classics, which are useful lists to start from when searching books that have those classics qualities. Often the publishers have included new introductions, illustrations, and important contextual information for contemporary readers. New bookstores will often feature these in special racks or shelves.

Are there quality books outside all of my criteria here? Of course. If you’re willing to pre-read (or even skim) a book before reading it with your child, then certainly you can find some older less well known gems. But, I want to emphasize again an important principle: an old book is not inherently better than a more recent book.

So, when I consider an older book that is not one of those well-regarded true classics, I ask myself: What is the value I hope to gain from an older book? Is there a subject I want to learn about with my child? Is there a specific lesson I hope to instill? A story I want them to experience? Knowing what I am looking for can help me decide whether an older book is the best option.

For me, there are very few of those books beyond those that are true classics. For more topical learning I have many beautiful, well-written contemporary books that better meet my aims in educating my children. However, the older books we do read usually fall into the category of “literature,” and they are usually tried-and-true classics.