Why Read the Classics?

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash *

There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.

– Walt Disney

As mentioned in my previous blog post, this is a (kind of) part 2 of why people read classics (or should). I’ve already talked about how I became a classics reader, but I want to ask the more general question (and a very difficult one to answer) of why read the classics at all?

I actually took the name of this blog post from an essay written by the Italian writer Italo Calvino in 1981, which also set out to answer the question ‘Why Read the Classics?’. Calvino spends a lot of that essay putting forward a number of definitions of what a classic actually is. It seems easy to us now, as the publishers have classic series of books, such Oxford World’s Classics, Penguin Classics and The Everyman Library.

I don’t want to spend too long discussing the definition of a classic, but I find it safe to say that any book that is still being printed and read over 100 years after it was published, and offers profound insights into human beings and the world we live in, can be called a classic. We might disagree over the qualities of the books mentioned in the publishing series above, but any book within these series, I accept as a classic.

Of course, then you have the problem of which books that have been published over the last 50-100 years are, or will be, considered a classic. It is very hard to tell. People may argue that John le Carré , J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood all write classics, but that is a debate that probably time will settle.

The final point I would like to add about what is considered a classic, is a book that is studied or taught in our educational institutions. Now of course this will vary from country to country, but if a book is offered up as a book to study many years after it is published, I think this can also be called a classic.

But why should we or anyone want to read them? I mean, look at all the books published today, there’s just so many to get your head into. Why read books that were published sometime so long ago, when I can read one of the many attractive books published last week?

I’ll offer here one of my first answers to the title question, but certainly not the most important, and that is, actually I think the classics are a safe bet for a good read. Whilst the books of today reflect the modern world we live in, and may have addictive plots and twists, do they actually change your life or help you grow as a person? They might do that, but for me, the few modern books I have tried to read or listen to, I just find myself losing interest very fast. It seems too much to read that many modern novels to find something of lasting value. But as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I take reading suggestions very seriously.

I am not denying at all by the way, that there aren’t great books published today at all. There have been many great books I love of history and philosophy that have been written in the last 20 years or so. And I did like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

But for a book to survive and thrive decades after it was written, is a good recommendation by society that there is value in the work.

Now I want to look at 2 contrasting opinions of why we should read the classics from 2 writers; the aforementioned Italo Calvino, but first of all Mortimer Adler. Adler was the author of 2 editions of ‘How to Read a Book’ (the 2nd edition with Charles Van Doren) and has been a popular proponent of the idea that books should be read to help you become a better reader and grow as a person.

He writes in How to Read a Book:

“You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn”

Therefore, the idea is that we should read to help us grow, and that means tackling challenging material to accomplish this. And surely we do all want to grow, right?

However, Italo Calvino writes in ‘Why Read the Classics?’:

“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.”

I agree with both points. Our reading skills and personal growth will progress if we read the classics, yet I don’t believe this can happen if there is no desire to read the book. We can’t force people to read the classics because we think they should. They have to want to read them.

As I previously discussed about how I became a classics reader, I do feel there was a sense of duty at first. I felt that if I wanted to become more in life (whatever that means), I should read these books. But that won’t last very long.

There are many books recommended in ‘How to Read a Book’ that are based on science and mathematics (Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton for example), and I have contemplated reading these books in the past, but I doubt I ever will, and they are not on my reading plan. I’m simply not interested in these subjects, and you could try and tell me all day long how they will help me understand things better, but it won’t make me want to read them.

I accept that this means that no matter how much love I have for a particular book or subject, this might never be shared by other people. I love for instance reading the classic texts of ancient Greece; the epic poems by Homer, the tragedians such as Sophocles and Aeschylus, and also the philosophy of Plato. If no one else shows a spark to read these books, then they won’t read them.

Is it possible to create that spark? I think it is, and it is by discussing our own passion for the subject and topic. Emotion will always win over logic. I can speak at length about why I love reading Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Zola, and generally this does create a curiosity amongst people. I can talk of how pleasurable it is to read The Odyssey whilst staying on one of the Greek islands in the Agean Sea, such as Zakynthos, Kefalonia or Ithaca, it adds a real authenticity to the text that creates another level of enjoyment and wonder to reading the epic.

But again, one has to want to do it themselves. A colleague of mine at work told me he was staying on one of the Greek islands last summer and I suggested the same thing, that he really must read The Odyssey whilst staying in Greece, and he agreed that he should, but he didn’t do it.

And that is why we have to win over people emotionally to read the classics. There is an element I am sure that lingers that the classics are those books that people feel they should read, but don’t actually intend to. Or as people have said to me many times, they don’t feel like they can. Normally, this is after having seen me with a copy of War and Peace. The same people can and do run marathons, but they can’t imagine getting through War and Peace. It must seem like too much of a hard work.

Which makes me think, are people very sensitive about what they focus their mental energy on?

It is only by creating a sense of curiosity and wonder I believe that people will read the classics. Like any form of human activity, they have to believe that they will profit from undertaking the activity. And again, this can only be achieved by appealing to their emotional, rather than logical self.

We therefore begin reading the classics because our curiosity and desire has been sparked, but then those other reasons as suggested by Adler for reading the classics, do kick in. By reading the classics, we do grow intellectually and I believe, morally and ethically. We are reading material that has guided humans in some cases for thousands of years.

We are communicating with Aristotle and Augustine and Chaucer, though we are hundreds of years apart. This is bound to have an effect on us I believe. The classic authors aren’t just providing us material to help us lighten up our day, they are providing wisdom that will help us become a better person and understand the world better.

The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest (people) of the past centuries.” – Descartes

By reading the classics, our world also expands – our imagination, our knowledge and our understanding. The greatest teacher in life will always be experience, but life-changing experience does not show up every day, maybe not for years. The great books help broaden our mental horizons when our world is calm.

And when we are growing, when our understanding of the world is greater, and when we are completely absorbed within the pages of a classic, we are happier people. Yes, I say that with confidence. What I know from my experience and from other people who read regularly, is that they would not swap it for another past-time in the world. To be completely invested in a book, and to wish you could just stay continually reading in the moment you are in, is a picture of joy. It is better than the movies and better than television, the author provides the words, the rest is your imagination.

This blog is my love story with classic literature. I can’t persuade people to read the classics but I can express how wonderful it is to be a classics reader in this world. And if that creates a spark in people to read the classics, then I am very happy for that person. I will still be here no matter what. I hope we can talk one day about how much you also love Plato, Shakespeare or Balzac. Or whatever books you love to read. I’d love to hear about them too.

My alma mater was books, a good library…. I could spend the rest of my life reading

– Malcolm X

27 thoughts on “Why Read the Classics?

  1. Nicely stated, all the way through. I used to be intimidated by the classics…sad to say, never had to read much of anything in all four years of high school. In fact, I was required to read more classics in elementary grades than HS. Even college was disappointing, as I look back.

    It’s only been 8 years now that I’ve been reading classics, thanks to The Well-Educated Mind. Plus I’m reading How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren presently. So it is great to find like-minded classic readers! Yay!

    I agree reading (classics) is better than TV and movies.

    Regretfully, I think it is harder to turn people onto the classics, especially if they are not readers. It may happen later in life that they decide they want to read, but in today’s visually stimulated world, with quick information shooting through one’s brain, it almost seems impossible to turn a non-reader to reading. Try getting them to SIT STILL for 20 minutes and focus on stationary words on a page that forces their brain to do the thinking.

    You may have a better chance at getting readers in general to try a classic, once they get over the fear that “It’s too hard.” I see many readers tell themselves they need to try the classics; and once they do, they find what they like.

    I will add that since I started w/ the classics, it has been difficult to get into the moderns or contemporary, something you also touched on. The literary and mental challenge isn’t there. But I’m not totally closed off to finding those good ones. They are out there.

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    1. Hi, thanks for the comment! Great insights, and yes it seems we are in agreement! There is another blog post I have thought of in the future about the education system and how this may affect people’s perceptions of the classics later in life.

      It is very hard to turn people on to the classics, especially as you say if they read very little anyway. I really don’t know why it seems like such hard work. I have had more than 1 comment over the last few months saying ‘it’s too high brow for me’ when people see me reading Emile Zola. And I still don’t think I am quite sure what they mean. Which is why I posed the question (though without answering it) regarding is it just too much mental energy to people? It must be something to do with the perceived concentration levels? As you say, in this world of easy visual stimulation, it must be thought of as too exhausting to focus on a great book that may be above you. People will expend much physical energy to look good and be fit, but when it comes to stretching their mind, they just can’t do it.

      I hope as I stated that passion for the classics can shine through and encourage people to read the classics, but time will tell. The most important thing is that we enjoy them and know the value we get from them!

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      1. This is another opinion of mine, to build on what you said…the first place to inspire a love of reading is at home between parent and child. Reading book should begin in infancy.

        Then schools should use reading books as a way to acquire learning, in addition to hands on, etc. And not text books, but living books or stories about history, science, people, etc.

        And literature should be a continuous introduction to the classics. Unfortunately, I think they are moving away from the classics bc the majority of works do not fit today’s social agenda; but if they looked deeper they would find great classic works by women, POC, etc, and it would still be classical teaching and look like a variety of characters in the world. Educators need to look instead of trying to reconstruct literature for today’s world to force their ideas on young people. The classics already teach us about human nature, and that is more important that what we “look like” on the outside.

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      2. I think you’d enjoy “Reading like a Writer” by Francine Prose, Ruth. As I recall, she makes a similar point. Not about education or how to teach the classics, but about seeing literature for what the author wrote rather than (as is popular these days) for what we’ve decided the author should have meant.

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  2. Beautifully stated, sir, & I agree with everything you and Ruth say above.

    People will expend much physical energy to look good and be fit, but when it comes to stretching their mind, they just can’t do it. – I love this quote. I do think it’s the mental energy required. They cannot conceive of the benefits because they have yet to experience them. People like hands-on proof that something will be worth their time. You can see fitness and weight loss. You cannot see an expanded mind. (Though in conversation you can experience it. Still, why would anyone who doesn’t read attribute that to books?)

    In 2012, I founded The Classics Club (long since run by moderators, rather than myself) to try to inspire people to make classic reading goals and TRY the classics. I wanted them to seem less pristine and untouchable. Just get in there and be messy, was the point. I figured if people blogged through fifty classics each in regular, everyday, new to the classics language, then readers of their blogs would begin to see that classics ARE touchable and life-changing.

    I do think the educational system had a BIG effect on my expectations about the classics. They make it into work and then one leaves school feeling that the classics are puzzlers quite separate from regular life rather than pieces of the human experience. At least, that’s how I felt. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the school or my own immaturity at the time, and limited experience. But I was not ready for Julius Caesar or For Whom the Bell Tolls at fifteen and sixteen years old. I couldn’t identify with the books at all, or else they weren’t taught particularly well to me. I felt very, very separate from the books. Very intimidate. That’s not a good thing. And this is from the woman who would go on to earn a B.A. in Literature & History.

    I think that you have to be at the right place in life, you have to have a hunger for it, to begin. I am not a natural reader (meaning I like to write, but find it difficult to concentrate on READING books when there is jogging to do, and people to converse with, etc. I’m an extrovert and am more naturally at ease chattering away than listening) :P, but in the last decade I’ve read all of Austen’s major works, most of the Brontes, several by Dickens, 13 Shakespeare if I recall, plus the sonnets, a good bit of Tolstoy, the Transcendentalists, Wollstonecraft, Plath (Ariel is superb), Victor Hugo, Alcott, Edith Wharton, Woolf (just discovering her!), etc. I wasn’t ready for Woolf ten years ago. Now suddenly I feel the time is right. I am finally feeling a real tug for George Eliot, which wasn’t there before. Books change you, but you change books, too — meaning as you grow, the books became different.

    I started reading classics because I needed something to fill up the soul. I felt directionless. I needed a goal, and one that I imagined would test me, and possibly supply me with some much-needed wisdom. I didn’t expect to grow to love the classics. I expected to get through my list and feel accomplished. I can’t imagine not reading them now. They fill up my soul, and some of them have become dear friends. It really is like conversing with people of the past.

    I tend to focus more in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than in the ancient literature, although I do feel a pull to read Homer. I’m interested in what you discover in your books, as you read. 🙂

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    1. Oh, I have to second that, Jillian…books, but especially the classics, are like friends. And once you read them, they remain with you; you begin to long for them, and want to revisit them. I DO THIS ALL THE TIME. I could be cooking dinner, and a thought of Jane Eyre comes to mind. I want to go back to it. Or I am cleaning my floor, and suddenly I desire to meet with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Again! Or I am driving my kids to their activities, and suddenly I wish I had more time to reread The Wind in the Willows.

      It is true, what Jillian has created in The Classics Club is a challenge to readers everywhere to commit to the classics. It grows stronger every year. I see book vloggers on YouTube who talk about wanting to add more classics to their diet. This is encouraging.

      It’s those non-readers we need to really help, I believe. And that may never happen for all, but maybe some. Like Jillian said, it has to be their desire (from within their own hearts). <— I think that's what you meant. Something like that.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, that’s what I meant. ❤ The problem is, to communicate our love of classics & how it has changed our lives, we have to somehow get non-readers to read what we write about the classics– to become involved in the community. I think when non-readers see the benefits, the excitement, the genuine FUN and LIFE and DEPTH that is potential in literature, they become interested. That's why I thought The Classics Club might help. If people who read blogs looking for YA got monthly exposure into the UTTER EXCITEMENT the blog author felt in completing say, a Thomas Hardy, that blog reader might be willing to give Hardy a try. And once bit, friends, one cannot stop eating classic books.

        Ruth, I do that too! Sometimes I'm just overcome with love for not only the characters I've met (Anne Shirley! The Ingalls family. Jane Eyre, Scarlett O'Hara, the March sisters, etc) but for their AUTHORS. Charlotte Bronte!! Margaret Mitchell! JANE AUSTEN. Such courageous, exciting, tenacious people. Examples of humanity! And I can't imagine how I lived not knowing them. xo

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  3. I’m loving this conversation, thank you both for your contributions! Good to see the education aspect has been discussed more. As I said earlier to Ruth, there is definitely a blog post to be written on this topic, but I have another quote from Italo Calvino on the subject of exposure to the classics at different ages. He writes “Reading a great work for the first time when one is fully adult is an extraordinary pleasure, one which is very different from reading it one’s youth”.

    I count myself lucky that I did not study Homer during my school years, as I remember when I was reading The Iliad a number of years ago, I asked a colleague at work if it’s the sort of thing they would read and they said “God no! I had to study that at school!’. And as was mentioned earlier in your conversation, I don’t really think it is school’s fault, but most people just do not enjoy the classics as teenagers. But what a pleasure they are missing as adults!

    On a different thread, I bought my first Bronte novel last week. It was actually Anne Bronte’s ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’ which I have a strange compulsion to read first. Might not be read immediately but look forward to reading it soon.

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  4. What do you think of introducing a child to the classics with a child’s version? I have read countless books to my kids of the Iliad, Odyssey, Dante’s Inferno, Beowulf, even Gilgamesh. Recently, I found picture books of the classics of Antigone, Crime and Punishment, and others. They were very close to the true story, but made for children. Anyway, I think this is a great way to introduce kids to harder classics, and later they may not be as intimidated by the real books. They will feel familiar to them bc they have an understanding of the story.

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    1. It would have helped me to read Shakespeare (& Hemingway) as a teen if I’d had some historical context. With Shakespeare, the teacher just handed us Julius Caesar and told us to read it. I was a straight A student who LOVED my English classes. I took it home diligently, and I remember crying because I simply didn’t have a clue what Shakespeare was saying, and it took FOREVER to get through even one sentence. I have a big picture brain, so that was the WORST way to introduce me to Shakespeare. Tell me why he is writing about Julius Caesar, why the play is relevant to our era, why he writes the way he does (to fool the censors!), why he is writing specifically to me, and then tell me how to navigate his text. I don’t remember any of that happening. Just, “Here is this totally impenetrable play about old people. Read it over the weekend.” Absolutely awful. So a children’s version in my childhood would DEFINITELY have helped. I’d have known what I was getting into. Tossing a teenager in cold is TERRIBLE. At least it was for me. I own a copy of Julius Caesar to try to give that one another read, but I still can’t make myself do it. That’s how much I hated that experience.

      I think when we got to class, the teacher started combing through it, but honestly the memory is so terrible I barely remember any of it, except hating that weekend and crying and giving up, which I NEVER did with homework. My mother couldn’t help because that’s how she’d been introduced to Shakespeare as well. She had no clue how to read him.

      Why would anyone think that’s going to make us love Shakespeare? I think it would be FAR better to spoil the plot right from the start, tell kids exactly what will happen, what Shakespeare is doing and why, and then read it together WITH US, showing us all the places Shakespeare is talking to his time and ours. Same with Hemingway.

      Sure, now I can read both of them, but at the time, I was NOT ready. So don’t ask me what Hemingway is doing as an author. TELL me what he is doing. Then I’d have the contextual information. Do that a couple times, and then toss me The Snows of Kilimanjaro or something as a solo read. My goodness, I didn’t understand why I was reading For Whom the Bell Tolls.

      (Sorry, I’m still bitter. I feel like it’s a REAL MISS not to tell students WHY they are reading such and such a book. Maybe my teachers did and I’ve just forgotten, but I don’t think so. I think they said, “Look for themes. Look for writing techniques. Good luck.” That’s like saying, “Here are a ton of numbers and letters. That is Algebra. Good luck figuring it out. Look for techniques and have an essay prepared for Monday.” How is that useful????)

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      1. Jillian, I would have cried, too! Shakespeare is challenging. It is like a foreign language, which is why kids should be exposed to him early on, using children’s versions. It should be part of language and history. Instructors should share the what and why before reading it, especially in its original. But this is really difficult for high school students unless they are getting fed Shakespeare in elementary and middle school. I understand your bitterness bc of your experience. Now you know how best to teach literature if you are ever in that position.

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      2. Ha! You know what would be amazing? SHAKESPEARE’s plays as graphic novels!! With action and context and such, for teens! But the original words! I thought of this idea as I was remarking “Just read the book” below, so the egg is on my face. I think it would have helped!!

        I have taught Shakespeare (as well as Percy Shelley) to frustrated college kids since my early experiences with Shakespeare — in the capacity of a tutor. They came to me crying and ready to quit school, and I turned them around with some historical and biographical context. People learn differently. Some want the discovery and challenge. Others are overwhelmed with give thousand assignments and NEED to know the why and where are we going in order to process the details. English students are on the whole big picture thinkers. You can’t teach them by leaving them in the dark. They want to know where they are going and why as they begin, so they can know where to file details. That’s been my experience. ❤

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  5. I think that is a great idea. It certainly might help students to enjoy the learning process of the classics, if they have some exposure to them at an earlier age. I must admit though to being curious to see the children’s picture version of Crime and Punishment!

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    1. I saw Anne Frank’s Diary as a graphic novel recently. I was a little put off (it seemed disrespectful), but a few friends convinced me that such a medium might help introduced kids to her work, and then they’d seek out the real work later. I saw a graphic novel Bible recently as well: the “Action” Bible. I found it odd, but again was reminded that children these days are very visual. Crime and Punishment as a graphic novel could be interesting…

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      1. Ugh, the graphic novel! When I was a new mom, I was strictly against taking graphic novels from the library, and my first 2 kids never read them. But after 3, 4, and 5 kids, I have become lax. So my youngest has read the most graphic novels. I still dislike them, but she is a good reader and reads everything; hence, I make the exception. I even read one myself — a biography on a woman who lost her husband at WTC on 9-11. It was a quick read, and the emotional response was still effective. The medium worked for this story. In some situations, I suppose it is tolerable.

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      2. I was assigned Abina and the Important Men in one of my lit classes, and it was actually a really deep read. But that was an original work. Remaking a classic like Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl or the Bible as a graphic novel still just feels off to me, because we already have these books? Why make the medium “easier”? I think I might be the one in the wrong, but my first instinct is, “Come now, just read the book.”

        I think I might try Maus at some point though, as well as the John Lewis series March on the Civil Rights Movement.

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    2. I don’t know what happened to my reply, but I’ll re-reply. The Crime and Punishment I read to my kids is part of the Save the Series and it is called The Story of Crime and Punishment by A. B. Yehosua. You can see it on Amazon.com. All of the ones we read from the series are well done.

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  6. It’s the Story of Crime and Punishment by A. B. Yehoshua, part of the Save the Story series. Check it out on Amazon.com. My kids loved it.

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  7. Jillian…I confess….my kids own the Old and New Testament Lego books. They both present the books of the Bible in graphic form using images constructed out of Legos. We thought it was fascinating when we bought them for the kids. (The “author’s” theology is slightly off, but it was still pretty accurate.) Some of the images were really graphic, but in truth, so is the Bible.

    And this year my son asked for the Lego Shakespeare by the same guy, so we got him the comedies and tragedies. Again, they are in graphic set up, but the language is similar to the original. As he reads them over and over, he KNOWS his Shakespeare!

    I see your point…why make the medium easier? Generations before us didn’t use helps. Young people read Shakespeare and the classics early on. What have we done? (I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.)

    Pete: I’ve replied two times now, but my comment is not showing up; so I’m trying again. The Crime and Punishment for kids is called The Story of Crime and Punishment by A. B. Yehoshua. It is part of the Save the Story series, aimed at sharing the classics and Ancients with young children. You can see them at Amazon.com.

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  8. My comments are not showing up on Pete’s blog, so I’m trying again, but directly on WordPress Hope this takes.

    Jillian…personally, I don’t think Anne Frank’s Diary is difficult to read or comprehend. I wouldn’t have wanted it in my classroom except to compare with the original work.

    Meanwhile, I confess….my kids own the Old and New Testament Lego books, (but they read them for fun bc they all have their own Bibles, which they read). They Lego version present the books of the Bible in graphic form using images constructed out of Legos. We thought it was fascinating when we bought them for the kids. (The “author’s” theology is slightly off, but it was still pretty accurate.) Some of the images are really graphic, but in truth, so is the Bible.

    And this year my son asked for the Lego Shakespeare by the same guy, so we got him the comedies and tragedies. Again, they are in graphic medium, but the language is similar to the original. As he reads them over and over, he KNOWS his Shakespeare!

    I see your point…why make the medium easier? Generations before us didn’t use helps. Young people read Shakespeare, the Ancients, and the classics early on. What have we done? (I could go on and on, but I’ll stop here.)

    Pete: I’ve replied two times now, but my comment is not showing up; so I’m trying again. The Crime and Punishment for kids is called The Story of Crime and Punishment by A. B. Yehoshua. It is part of the Save the Story series, aimed at sharing the classics and Ancients with young children. You can see them at Amazon.com.

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