The great literary classics are more than merely important works of art, says author Kevin Smokler. Books that have stood the test of time should also provide insight into “how to live a great life.” In his new book, “Practical Classics,” Smokler advocates re-reading those oft-assigned tomes like “Candide,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” We talk with Smokler, and we want to hear from you: what makes a book worthy of revisiting?

Kevin Smokler, author of "Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books you Haven't Touched since High School"

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Back in the early 80’s I came upon an old set of Harvard Classics which we still have. All 51 volumes. They are used all the time since we are a homeschooling family. T
    hen when our oldest was around ten he and some friends started playing Dungeons and Dragons and this opened up whole new area of interest in art, architecture, food, agriculture and various other topics of past centuries.
    Yet it was all those Harvard Classics he had read and would be read by others that helped them in the game and in tutoring others on what various classic literature had said of the times.
    Today we read aloud from many of the classics and its fun to hear the grandchildren and friends children bring emotion to what they are reading. Be it Dickens, the Brontës, Tolstoy,Twain, to Steinbeck, and Ray Bradbury.
    Recently read a book on the King James Bible and how it was written by learned men who were friends of or appreciated the works of Shakespeare. And that their edition of the Bible was meant to be read aloud like a play.

  • thucy

    I attended a cheap California public high school, but we were assigned many more truly classical (classical era) books and plays than appear in Smokler’s table of contents. Which makes me wonder…
    Is Euripides now too radically feminist for U.S. teens? Is Thucydides now too anti-war? Is Sophocles too anti-authoritarian for the U.S., which has the highest per capita prison population in the world?
    Or is the real problem that in a country like the U.S., which teeters pathologically close to religious fundamentalism, and in which the military-industrial complex is our most consistent contributor to GDP, teachers don’t dare assign books that prove a polytheistic society was in many ways more civilized – not to mention more democratic and self-critical – than ours?

    • Bob Fry

      Alas, my English and philosophy teachers in high school and college were mostly dismal and I read few “classics”. Now decades later I wish I had more of my mother’s classic education, but it’s not too late for me to catch up.

      • thucy

        never too late… and so much fun!

      • thucy

        I just realized… you’re an engineer, and Zola had trained as such. Have you “met” him? He ended up taking a scientific, observational approach to his novels. Maybe his “Germinal” is for you! It’s keenly observed, with lots of technical detail about the industry, which never inhibits plot, characters. Maybe unnecessarily long. “La Curee” (The Kill) is shorter. Also thinking you’re a good match for Melville’s “Typee” and “Moby-Dick”.

    • aa aa

      My own experience as a educator, student and parent of public school children at both the college and high school levels compels me to say that you’re barking up the wrong tree. The ancient Greeks aren’t avoided because they’re polytheists (an aspect barely visible in the classical literature as most writers use “God” and “gods” interchangeably) but because there is a movement in this country at both the college and high school levels. to excise as many so-called “dead white European males” from the curricula as possible in the name of a misguided “multi-culturalism.”

      The ancient Greeks are the most politically incorrect because they’re perceived as the deadest (older than classic European literature), the whitest (at least most of the Bible was written by many non-European Middle Easterners) and the most male-dominated (classic European literature at least includes some prominent female writers), so we educators are pressured not to dare promote the idea that ancient Greek literature is the basis of our now supposedly “multi-cultural” society.

      As a sad side note, I was appalled by the fact that even the classics of AMERICAN literature were not assigned to my son in his supposedly advanced placement English classes in the local high school (called Terra Nova). They were assigned one great American novel, and read “Of Mice & Men.” Unlike the English classes of my high school, they never were assigned ANY Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Melville, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc. Unlike my classes, they were assigned no classic continental European literature at all (i.e. no Kafka, Sartre, Dostoevsky, etc). They read a couple of Shakespeare plays and two Dickens novels. And other English literature such as I was assigned (Chaucer, Swift, Austin, Bronte sisters, Hardy etc)?. Never read.
      What were they assigned? Magazine articles and a few bestsellers of the post-WWII era (Secret Life of Bees, Kaffir Boy, Kite Runner). In other words, there is an extreme bias in many public schools today against anything actually classic i.e. old..

      • thucy

        I hear you. I really do. I hated the whole PC thing. But I notice that the curriculum excludes a lot of radical 19th-century writers like Balzac, Hugo, Zola. These dead white men can’t be taught, but F. Scott Fitzgerald can? Teach Henry James, but not Zola’s Germinal? Something else is going on…

        • aa aa

          It’s probably because Fitzgerald is at least American, and the concept of teaching American literature in high school is not completely dead. Shakespeare survives because, after all we Americans are supposed to learn English so you can’t get away with reading nothing of the greatest English writer ever in an AP class. But continental Europeans are too “white,” not American, and did not write in English, so they have been completely excised as “irrelevant” from my kids’ local high school.

    • geraldfnord

      If it weren’t for “The Tyrant Œdipus” I wouldn’t be able to understand American fundamentalists and many others on the Right: at heart, they believe that the conjunction of the wrong sets of genitals cause plagues, earthquakes, and the like.

      (The smarter of them would hold that this were not literally true, that these disasters are but stand-ins for the social decay they hold those conjunctions to engender—their own take on ‘The personal is political,’ really—but I still think whatever power the view wields is rooted in the ancient version of cause-and-effect.)

  • After finishing Practical Classics last night, my faith in any literature’s relationship to humanity is renewed. Even the lightest readers have favorites, will defend them, and possess an unwavering hatred for other works–all of this becoming a culture’s conversation about itself (with itself).

  • Chris OConnell

    What about books on audio? The reader has full autonomy. The listener has less. No? Audiobooks are some sort of hybrid experience involving literature but it is not reading. And so tone of voice and attitude etc. is presumably imparted by the voice as opposed to the reader.

    • thucy

      The Iliad was, for its first 200 years, only spoken. There was no way to write it upon conception. Later, Greek plays were written only with the intent to be seen and heard, not read in book format. And, this is the weird part, these radical plays were an integral part of Athenian religious tradition.
      So Bob Fry’s suggestion to try librivox is more classical than we think! And, the readings are so beautifully amateurish (a compliment) that it’s really a great shared experience.

      • Chris OConnell

        I do not want to listen to literature on tape. It doesn’t work for me. But non-fiction is different. That’s my preference and I am sticking with it.

        • thucy

          cool, different strokes…

  • thucy

    I love how honest this guy is about Hawthorne, but seriously, The Scarlet Letter ROCKS!
    The intro Hawthorne wrote to The Scarlet Letter is as good as the whole book. A hysterically funny take-down of The Customs House, which fired his lazy a–. Thank God Hawthorne was a lazy gov’t employee – civilization has prospered amid his lack of teamwork.

  • Bob Fry

    BTW…many older novels can be found in free audiobook form at, and they have a handy app for smartphone users. Listen to the classics on your commute!

    • Chris OConnell

      Especially during the fundraising period!

  • I have thoroughly enjoyed reading and listening to others read Moby Dick at the same time via the Moby Dick the Big Read, a fantastic love for the book was rekindled after traveling to small islands in the South Pacific, traveling through the North East, studying the whaling station’s history here in Richmond, and finally enjoying the resident and migrating whale’s off our coast. I read the book in my teens and now bring decades of life into re-reading it that I was clearly not mature enough during my first reading to understand how modern and fantastic it is.

  • aa aa

    I also had a hard time getting through “Scarlet Letter”, and read “House of Seven Gables” in high school because I thought it would improve my vocabulary (SAT’s on the horizon), rather than out of love. But many of Hawthorne’s short stories were impressive even to me as a high school student. I think the problem with Hawthorne was that he really is a short story writer, but felt he had to write novels because that’s what “great” nineteenth century writers were supposed to do. High school English teachers could help Hawthorne’s rep with their students a lot if they only assigned his short stories, rather than the novels.

  • disqus_mnjqrq2lzE

    A classic worth revisiting is “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. I re-read it after High School and understood it so much better than as a naive 16 year old.

  • Samantha

    As an idealistic/optimistic 19-year old English major, I despised books such as Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio” and anything by Hawthorne or Sinclair Lewis for their portrayal of decayed dreams and frustrated ambitions. When I started to re-read those books in my late 30s/early 40s, I wrote an apology to one of my former professors. Now these are my favorite works, beautiful, and sometimes either humorous or heart wrenching protrayals to the paths taken, or not taken.

    And for Mr. Smokler: As a girl, I devoured every “road-trip” or adventurer type item I could get my hands on….I wish that was not considered a “male” trait. Even in the beginning of Jane Eyre (a “girly” book?), Jane finds escape through books where she can be an explorer or adventurer.

  • Chris OConnell

    (Just a correction, Malcolm X’s grandson was killed in a robbery attempt in Mexico, not New Orleans. It is very tragic. He was doing some positive things in contrast to his troubled youth.)

  • Sarah

    Brave New World! Was so shocking to me back in the 90’s but even less than twenty years later as I read it I realized how less shocking it is to me. Life imitating art? I don’t know, but the concepts of Soma, sexually liberal society,and being stuck in the class one is born into…

    • geraldfnord

      After an encounter with someone who I’m guessing was much stupider than he had to have been, I remember the Controller[?]’s remark to the effect of ‘Our society stunts the minds and bodies of many people as embryos so that they’ll be content in their social rôles, but is that morally worse than doing the same to children and young adults to the same purpose?’

      Our education is severely deficient because that’s the way ‘we’ want it to be—could we really survive as a society in anything like our current configuration if most people thought for themselves and (for example) understood just how much better their life can be? Even with educational damage, it’s still necessary to maintain a thriving gossip industry to make it look as if the rich weren’t much better off than the rest of us….

  • Books on tape have been a godsend for my 87 year old mother whose vision no longer is sharp enough to read.

  • Don

    Amazing to re-read Robinson Crusoe; compared to when I read it as a child and now re-reading it. An entirely different perspective from that of an “adventure novel” to one that has serious philosophical underpinnings.

  • I’ve recently begun reading some classics – Dostoevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” and “Crime and Punishment,” Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” and Wilde’s “Picture of Dorian Gray.” I’m finding that in many cases the pieces we consider classics are deeply depressing, and in some cases disturbing. What is it that draws us as a culture to such heavy literature? I need to take a break and read something a little lighter.

  • janw1951

    After trying to read McTeague by Frank Norris years ago, successfully read it recently. Loved the time-capsule descriptions of Polk Street and other sections of the City circa 1899. Although most of the characters are not very likable, the story became a page turner, with a wicked, darkly humorous twist at the end.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor