Armchair BEA: Classics

My Favorite Classic

The first discussion topic for Armchair BEA is classics. I was struck by a few of the questions the moderators asked, particularly these: If you could give a list of classics to someone who claims to hate them to make them change their mind, what would be on it? How would you convince them to give classics a try?
I became a reader of classics through television. Yes, modern culture’s much maligned boob-tube is what led me to the classics. Let me explain. 

As a kid I wasn’t a huge reader. Sure, I read books, but I didn’t seek them out and live on them like oxygen until I discovered, while browsing through a Scholastic catalog, that they’d written a book based on the movie Dracula. Back-ass-wards, right? 

Well, I was only in 7th grade and didn’t know that the movie was based on Bram Stoker’s1897 novel, Dracula. But I loved monster movies and Dracula was my favorite character. I have such a fond memory of spending what seemed like the entire summer (between softball games and mowing the lawn) lounging on the hammock in the backyard reading Dracula. I remember it wasn’t what I expected–the style was a challenge for me to get into at first–but I loved Dracula so much that I persevered. I was mesmerized by the depth with which I was able to explore the story of Dracula through the novel. It also helped me understand my parents, who read every night and on the weekends, a bit more.

Dracula led me to Salem’s Lot which led me to a lot of great and some pretty bad novels in the horror genre. I have a strong suspicion that making my way through novels like Dracula and The Stand at a young age helped me give some of my assigned school reading a fighting chance to grow on me.

I loved reading The Good Earth and The Pearl in 8th grade. In high school I recall enjoying just about everything that my English teacher, Mr. Antus, had us read. Well, with the exception of The Old Man and the Sea. I wish Mr. Antus was still alive so I could ask him what he was thinking when he had a bunch of teens read that one.

A Marine Classic

I continued to read a lot in the Marines, which I joined before I was out of high school. During these years I gravitated toward books that helped deepen and widen my knowledge of and love for the USMC (and that also helped me make sense out of the frustration and disappointment I was also beginning to feel).

One day I had finished my work and my boss (a sergeant major, one of the highest enlisted ranks) told me that I could read until my shift was up. When he had found out I was a reader we’d instantly bonded–across age, gender, and race lines, not to mention many, many levels of rank (I was a Private First Class). So, there I sat reading when an officer walked in. He saw me sitting there with a mass market paperback and instantly started chewing me out (I imagine he thought it was a romance novel). My boss stepped in and innocently suggested that the officer ask what I was reading. When I held up my copy of Marine! The Life of Chesty Puller by Burke Davis that officer turned a bit pink, apologized, and walked out. We chuckled. Books are powerful!

Eventually I did go to college where I got into Middle and Old English literature, discovered Willa Cather, and then in graduate school focused mainly on pre-twentieth century American writers. After graduate school I discovered the world of contemporary fiction and non-fiction, advance reader copies, and book clubs, but classics have remained a consistent part of my reading life because I know I’ll be in for a good and/or meaningful story when I pick up one.

I think my point in sharing the above is that if you’re going to try to get people to read a classic, you have to find away in for them. Find out what they’re interested in. These days there are many classics being turned into graphic novels and some are finding new readers through Hollywood adaptations. In other words, don’t kill your TV and don’t freak out about classics being turned into comic books.

It’s human nature to want to find out more about what we’re interested in, so if you’re trying to get someone to read the classics, my advice is to start not where you are, but where they are.

p.s. Speaking of classics, did you know that the Marine Corps has required reading? It’s called the Commandant’s Professional Reading List and it started in 1988 (after I got out or I’d have been all over it. Hell, I might have even reenlisted!). Here’s a link that will take you to the official reading list website. Each rank has a list of required books to read and you can view them that way or as professional categories. Titles include classics such as Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and more recent popular novels like Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Check it out, you might be surprised by some of the titles. You can even follow USMC reading action on Twitter @USMCReadingList.

Good night, Chesty, wherever you are!


  1. wow, if TV encourages young people to read, then I am all for it! Whatever way you get to the classics is great! Hey, did you hear? they just discovered a lost book by Pearl Buck! this is no joke, I read about it a couple of days ago

  2. I just heard about the recently discovered Buck novel on the NYT Book Review podcast today! Amazing story. What a find. Thanks for visiting!

  3. Willa Cather, Willa Cather, Willa Cather! Love! And, I work with military students on a daily basis, yet none of them have told me about this Commandant's Professional Reading List! What!? I'm off to check this out, thanks!

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