A classic or a shonda: Which pieces of literature stand the test of time?

Earlier today, I was listening to an audio recording of some Beatrix Potter stories. My children and I laughed over the surreal adventures of little Lucy in “Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle” and the slapstick of “Two Bad Mice.” The stories are about a hundred years old now, I believe, and they’ve stood the test of time very well.

A failure in my sister’s home.

My kids and I often read classics, and sometimes we recommend titles to friends and family looking for a good read. Not too long ago, I recommended “Little House” books to my sister. Specifically, I suggested she start with Farmer Boy, which my children think is nearly as funny as a Beverly Cleary book. The scene where Almanzo feeds his pig home-made candy is one of the few literary moments that have made my kids laugh as hard as Ramona’s antics.

So, my sister and brother-in-law picked up a copy to read with one of their kids. A few days later, I got a phone call from my sister.

“What were you thinking?” she asked.

Apparently, she and her husband had reached the point of the book where Almanzo’s dad takes revenge on the evil schoolmaster. Horrified by the violence of the scene and the disrespect shown to an authority figure, they decided to discard the book.

Now, my husband is a teacher, and I used to be one. We tell our children they should treat teachers with respect. If a teacher is too strict with them, Mr. Klempner does not head to the classroom with a bullwhip.

We’re usually the types of people who censor our children’s reading material pretty closely. If we’d been disgusted by Farmer Boy, I would never have recommended it to my sister.

But we thought the scene was hilarious, not scandalous.

At first, I chalked it up to taste, but then I asked myself: Did the book fail in my sister’s house because it was outdated in its portrayal of school and discipline? I’m not sure. And then I wondered why we Klempners — usually such sensitive readers — tolerated the book. Did my husband and I suspend our disgust because the books’ events clearly happened in the past?

There are definitely some books that do not stand the test of time. Certain early sci-fi novels, for example, contain “science” that doesn’t hold up. Other books hold content that is clearly racist, upholds outdated values, or contains details that will mystify the contemporary reader. Are some people able to tolerate some of these issues because of the distance of time, while other cannot?

What do you think makes a book stand the test of time? Which books do you think fail to do so, and why? Please share in the comments.

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