Blog | Eugene Havens

“Why the Dickens should I read classic fiction?”

You'll gain a lot by adding time-honored novels to your reading routine.

Woman reading a book in bed
Author Eugene Havens

About Me

Eugene Havens is the founder of The Writing Thing Press. A graduate of the MFA program at The New School, Eugene is the author of Marble on a Table: A Novel. See Eugene's author page.

Old can be good

When you hear the word classic used to praise something these days, what comes to mind? “Here we go. Another dated thing.”

Classic films. Classic rock. Classic cars. We’re told how important these things still are. Yet, many of us would rather watch, hear, or drive a newer version. We’re drawn to new ideas. With classic stuff, we’ve seen it before.

We think the classics can make your modern life better.

When a year-old smartphone is described as “aging,” you know our culture is all about progress. Should anyone care about the classics?

Definitely! In fact, we think the classics can make your modern life better.

What we mean by classic

Classic rock is about nostalgia, the good old days when rock was king. We use the word classic for fiction very differently. It’s an elite term. It means the best, or “a gold standard for storytelling.”

among the best at describing the human experience …

We’re not saying, “try those quaint classic books.” We’re saying, read books that are among the best at describing the human experience, regardless of era. Old books could be the best? Is this true? We think so.

Old writing has something to say to us. Naturally, humanity is evolving year after year in certain ways. In other ways, people are people. An observation about human nature written one thousand years ago could be true today. Maybe we’d prefer to be ever-evolving scientific creations, but … we’re humans.

Let us explain why we believe you should add “classic” fiction to your usual modern reads.

A clearer look

Wouldn’t it be nice to get away from technology for a while? Technology has transformed our lives. Some might say, technology also has clouded our vision.

We stare at our phones to masterfully control our schedules. That is until the phone battery dies, the internet goes down, or someone important doesn’t return our text instantly. Then we face the unruly life that technology shields us from. 

Classic stories show us what the human condition is really like.

Classic fiction is all about this unruly life. It’s filled with the highs and lows of disconnected living.

The era we define as classic fiction is the 18th-19th centuries. It was a time of surprising modernity, with a vibrant culture much like our own. Except, this era came before the advancements, and distractions, of modern technology. Classic stories are able to show us an aspect of the human condition we’ve forgotten.

Dialed in

A key element of classic fiction is the struggle against the natural world. Before the 20th century, most everyone lived in some degree of physical hardship. It bred a more introspective viewpoint than today.

To use an antiquated 20th century phrase, writers of the 18th-19th centuries were more dialed in than we might be. They weren’t distracted by smartphones. These writers observed people living in an untamed world and wrote eloquently about it.

These writers observed people living in an untamed world and wrote eloquently about it.

The ironic detachment we see everywhere today wasn’t as pervasive. People were vulnerable. Life was not seen as trivial but a serious thing. It was possible to die of typhus at a young age, to be killed in battle, or die in childbirth. It’s hard to believe, but life expectancy in Europe in the 19th century was forty years old!


There’s a website that collects this era of fiction. It’s called

Are the books found on Gutenberg depressing? You’d think so hearing the above statistic. What makes classic fiction remarkable is the life-affirming nature of it. When you think of the literary greats, like Tolstoy, Austen, Twain, Flaubert, or The Brontë Sisters, you imagine the heights they reached in their fictional worlds.

The latest Dickens novel was passed around from house to house.

Classic fiction rings true. Its moments are poignant, even bittersweet. For people of that day, books were the movies. The latest Dickens novel was passed around from house to house.

Dickens didn’t write about a fantasy world. His readers weren’t trying to escape from reality. People rediscovered the world they lived in, with all its beauties and flaws. They met fascinating characters they imagined meeting in real life. 

5 reasons to read the classics

Maybe you’re not into a history lesson. That’s OK. What does classic fiction have to do with you today?

Even if you’re not interested in the poetic pathos of old authors, we think there are tangible benefits to reading classic fiction for anyone.

Increase your vocabulary

It’s good advice: if you want to improve your vocabulary, read better books.

Unfortunately, many books today are written for a 5th-grade reading level. Readers want basic information, delivered quickly. People are too busy for more.

Novels back then were written to sharpen minds.

If you’re interested in elevating your reading game, classic fiction is for you. Classic books are a good answer to the dumbing-down (or streamlining) of modern language. Novels back then were written to sharpen minds.

For one thing, the authors wrote in more formal English. Don’t worry. The grammar and vocabulary aren’t too challenging, but you may need to check your phone’s dictionary once in a while.

Could adding classic fiction to your nightstand make you smarter in six months? As the old saying goes, it couldn’t hurt.

See what the fuss is about

Classic fiction lingers in our modern consciousness. For example, you might hear a reference to a difficult situation as being like “chasing the white whale.” Or, a new movie comes out that’s based on a classic novel you haven’t read.

Don’t we sometimes wish that old stories would go away, so we wouldn’t keep wondering what they’re about? Why did the pretty Russian socialite throw herself under the train? How did a guy actually chase a whale? Who’s the old woman who lives in her wedding dress again?

Wouldn’t it be fun to meet these legendary characters on the page?

Sure, you can read the Wikipedia entries for Anna KareninaMoby Dick, and Great Expectations. Wouldn’t it be fun to meet these legendary characters on the page?

Enter a time machine

The allure of classic fiction includes its distinctive time period. Life was much different two hundred years ago. Reading about the recent past is fascinating. It’s so much like our own, yet so foreign.

For instance, we’re big fans of 19th century Russian literature. The culture of the jaded Russian aristocracy, contrasted with the noble life of Russian peasants, is an illuminating exploration of a consumer society.

Life was much different even two hundred years ago.

Many readers enjoy 19th century France as seen through the eyes of Gustav Flaubert or Marcel Proust. Every culture and country is represented in classic fiction. Was the past a simpler time? No. You’ll find classic fiction can be gut-wrenching with its focus on authenticity. You’ll enter a living, breathing world that is no more. You’re sure to bring something from that time into your own life.

Name drop (go ahead)

Would it be cool to tell friends at a party, “I just finished reading Madame Bovary?”

OK, so you might hear back, “who’s that?” This book hasn’t been made into a movie lately. Either way, sharing an experience with art is never a bad thing. If you went to a museum and saw a Picasso, you would probably mention it to friends. It would be something new to talk about.

Sharing an experience with art is never a bad thing.

Positive social pressure was once a big reason to read classic literature. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with a little name dropping. It can be obnoxious if done the wrong way. Who knows. Maybe your example could start a book club?

Where the best is free

if you’ve noticed the rising price of ebooks, classic books from the 18th and 19th centuries are free in digital form. Check out and start reading on your phone or computer. Or, transfer the files to an e-reader. It’s easy.

classic books from the 18th and 19th centuries are free in digital form

Why are we so high on old books? Classic novels turn language into art and a typical story into a historical moment. This era of timeless storytelling is one we won’t see again. We’re a visual society. Fewer people read seriously, and more importantly, write serious fiction. There are more lucrative ways to use our talents today.

There will always be great authors. Writing is a calling and true writers can’t avoid making books. After all, we make books! But a robust ecosystem for serious writing doesn’t exist currently. Classic fiction represents a time when writing was at the center of society. For us, it’s the pinnacle of written storytelling.

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