In a conversation with a coworker about what we had been reading lately (as you can imagine, this is common among people who work in libraries), she shared with me her goal to reread classics she read in high school to see if her opinion about them has changed with a second reading. This led us into an extended conversation about the classics that most of us read in high school, from older titles like Pride and Prejudice to more modern classics like Fahrenheit 451. And while different schools around the country require different titles, almost all of us can remember reading at least a few books that most people consider a classic.  

But as we discussed all the books we had each read in school, I increasingly noticed something I had vaguely considered before, but not given enough deeper thought to: the classics we were assigned were almost exclusively written by white, cisgender men, either from the United States or Western Europe. There are some exceptions, with a few women authors like the Brontë sisters, and authors who clearly had LGBT+ identities like Oscar Wilde. But overwhelmingly, from Charles Dickens to George Orwell, classic authors pretty much all fit this description. And this made me wonder, why? Are cisgender, white, European and American people, and particularly men, simply better writers of the kind of fiction that makes a lasting impression on our society? Are no books of lasting literary merit or featuring important cultural commentary being created by marginalized authors in these countries, or from some of the many other countries around the world? Or is it that the way we place importance on works of fiction, and the credibility we give to specific authors as a society, is skewed to place higher importance on the types of people that already have more power, privilege, and visibility in our culture?  

Questioning if these books are truly all we should consider when discussing classics is not about questioning if these books are good, or worth remembering. Instead, it is about questioning if this is an all-inclusive list of the books we should recognize as valuable, and if it’s not, what voices are we holding back from being considered part of this category? How many books with similar literary merit, cultural commentary, or historical significance, that show the creative expression and details of marginalized people’s lives, are we denying ourselves and future generations the opportunity to enjoy because we do not make them readily available, from being required in classrooms to being available in every bookstore and library around the country? Books, whether easy reads or heavy classics, should act as mirrors and windows wherever possible, and if we are only reading books from one subset of our population, most of us are missing out on seeing ourselves reflected or learning about others through these works.  

It is important to recognize though that not every school district requires the same literature, and not every school district follows the same patterns. Some schools and colleges are currently removing titles that discuss race or other forms of prejudice, which disproportionately removes titles written by authors of marginalized identities (for example, Maus was recently removed from a school curriculum in Tennessee because the material was deemed age inappropriate for children). But other schools are doing the opposite, and actively expanding their offerings to include both recent, well respected marginalized authors, as well as titles from authors that are less well known, less recent, and with less focus on authors from the United States or Europe.

Since my time in school, I’ve seen newer curriculums, particularly at colleges, starting to include a wider array of authors, including titles like One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Beloved by Toni Morrison, but also titles like Wynema: A Child of the Forest by S. Alice Callahan, one of the first novels to be written by a Native American woman. This inclusion of a more varied collection of authors and works is not meant to replace the importance of the Western canon of classics, but to expand on the titles and authors we consider to be influential, culturally significant, and worth preserving for future generations to learn from. This slow expansion to include authors outside the traditional idea of classics will hopefully continue and spread, but in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about classics from a diverse array of authors, countries, and original publication languages, check out this list