13 Beloved Books That Didn’t Age Well
Maybe it's time to trade in a few beloved classics for fresh takes on relationships, coming-of-age stories, and children's literature.
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A classic isn’t always classic
Every year, thousands of new books hit bookstore shelves and the queues in our e-readers. Despite the deluge of new material, a handful of novels remain popular for decades, sometimes centuries, after they’re published. These classics earn a place on our shelves and in our hearts, but what happens when we suddenly notice signs of racism or sexism we didn’t see before? Read on for our list of beloved books that have grown less and less relevant with age—and what to consider reading instead. Though classics like these are undergoing more scrutiny than ever in the 21st century, censoring books for potentially problematic material is nothing new—find out which books were banned the decade you were born.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Though Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been praised for its anti-slavery message, the classic’s sheen has worn thin over the years. The problem? The book was based on the true story of an enslaved man named Josiah Henson, according to Smithsonian Magazine. While Stowe received praise and payment for penning the story, Henson never saw a penny from it.
Interested in learning more about Josiah Henson? Pick up a copy of The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War. The book tells the full story of how Henson rescued 118 enslaved people and got invited to Windsor Castle by Queen Victoria after he became free. Find out 100 books everyone should read before they die.
Heart of Darkness
Beloved by many English teachers, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is read in classrooms all over the country. But Conrad’s 1899 novel includes a disturbingly prejudiced view of Africa, including a moment when an African person is referred to as “a dog wearing trousers.” In 1975, Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe called Conrad a “bloody racist,” highlighting why it’s necessary to think critically about even our favorite authors.
We could do better by reading about Africa from authors who call the continent their home. Achebe’s Things Fall Apart is a great place to start. It’s the story of a brave, wealthy warrior named Okonkwo during the late 1800s. Find out the 10 most borrowed books from the New York Public Library.
Gone With the Wind
It’s no surprise that a story set in the Civil War–era Confederacy includes some revisionist history. In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, African American slaves toil happily in the fields, singing and laughing as their owners flit around in pretty dresses and suits. Glazing over a dark period in American history isn’t just old-fashioned, according to Peter Feuerherd, professor of journalism at St. John’s University in New York. In an academic article published in 2017, Feuerherd wrote that pretending slavery wasn’t damaging is downright dangerous.
Craving a realistic read about southern women during the Civil War? We were riveted by Karen Abbott’s Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. The brave heroines in this story have memorable personalities like Scarlett O’Hara—but without the racist undertones.
The Little House on the Prairie series
In 2018, the American Library Association voted to take Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name off their popular children’s book award. Why? Because a modern reading of the beloved Little House on the Prairie series reveals a problematic theme: stereotypical portrayals of African Americans and Native Americans.
Instead, read Our Only May Amelia, by Jennifer L. Holm. It’s a Newbery Honor–winning novel, set in 1899, about spunky 12-year-old May Amelia, the only girl in a new pioneer settlement in Washington state. These are 10 high school English books you should read again as an adult.
Samuel Richardson’s book was published in 1740. Is it any wonder the tale of a teenage girl struggling against an older man’s romantic advances hasn’t survived the test of time? Yet Pamela maintains its place in the list of classics because it was the first English novel. The widely lauded story was also an epistolary novel (written as an exchange of letters).
Looking for a fresh, modern take on an epistolary story? Pick up a copy of the wildly popular Where’d You Go, Bernadette? A hilarious, heartwarming tale told through emails, faxes, and police reports, Maria Semple’s novel will warm your heart instead of making you feel icky. With a mother-daughter relationship at its center, it’s one of the great books for moms and daughters to read together.
Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Last year, author Andrea Ruggirello explained on ElectricLiterature.com that while she’d enjoyed Carolyn Keene’s Nancy Drew adventures as a kid, time gave her a new perspective. “This world needs a Nancy Drew who steps out of the white, middle-upper class mold,” Ruggirello said. Unfortunately, the author’s prejudices do show. Take The Secret of the Old Clock, when a black man who saves Nancy from peril is described as a drunken simpleton. In other books, Nancy’s friends are identified primarily by their appearances: Bess is “pleasantly plump,” while George is an “athletic tomboy.”
The Sinclair’s Mysteries, on the other hand, is a modern take on smart, bold teenage sleuths. Like Nancy Drew’s cases, these mysteries move at a fast clip. They take place in an extravagant, lively department store in Edwardian London, where readers are invited to ponder the way characters of different classes are treated by authority in the historic setting. These are 18 of the best thrillers to read right now.
The Giving Tree
Madeleine Brand, former host of NPR’s “Day to Day” segment, told the Los Angeles Times that she was appalled by the expectation Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree sets for young mothers with its not-so-subtle metaphor. She said, “When I received 50 copies after the birth of my children, I read it with adult eyes and was horrified. This tree—the mother—keeps giving and giving and giving to a child who keeps taking and taking and taking. He denudes her, literally, until she is a stump, and then at the end, the boy—now a tired, old man—sits on her. The tree says she’s happy—happy to be sat upon.”
Swap out The Giving Tree for Love You Forever by Robert Munsch. In this 1995 classic, a mother’s unconditional love leads to a role reversal when her adult son uses the love and skills he learned from her to become his mother’s caregiver.
Barely appropriate even in 1955, this classroom read has gotten more rotten with age. It’s a disturbing twist on a classic tale of boy-meets-girl. The book chronicles a middle-aged man’s obsession with forcing a 12-year-old girl (whom he calls Lolita) into a sexual relationship.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lolita but would rather not read the creepy account for yourself, check out Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, which The Independent called “a story of love, books, and revolution.“
Romance readers have praised Charlotte Brontë’s classics for a long time. Jane Eyre is often listed in a long line of favorites. But mistreating—even imprisoning!—a woman isn’t cool, and that’s exactly what the handsome, brooding Edward Rochester does midway through the story. Looking at the 1847 novel through a modern lens recently led The Artifice to call out Jane as a contemporary “bad feminist.”
Looking for a Brontë heroine with a better taste in men and a little more gumption? You’re bound to enjoy one of Anne Brontë’s lesser-known masterpieces, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
The Swiss Family Robinson
A shipwrecked family, an exotic menagerie, and years surviving in tree houses on a tropical island—what’s not to love, right? Though Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson still captivates readers with its swashbuckling tales of adventure, stereotypical descriptions of Southeast Asian pirates put a major damper on the fun.
Don’t worry, bookstores still brim with plenty of action-packed survival stories that don’t include a side of racism. For a stereotype-free read about courage, animals, and nature, look no further than My Side of the Mountain. It’s another great story for young readers who dream of surviving on their own in the wilderness.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
As coming-of-age stories go, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has topped children’s literature classics lists for decades. The problem is that several references in the book, published in the 1880s, haven’t aged well for today’s more culturally sensitive readers. The dialogue is littered with the “N-word,” and many high school teachers and librarians have banned the novel because of it. As teacher Lee J. Woolman told the Star Tribune, “Maybe [books like those] are part of the problem, not the solution.”
For a modern coming-of-age classic that takes on racism instead of participating in it, look no further than T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville. Find out more of the surprising books every teen should read before graduating high school.
The Secret Garden
The Guardian once described this classic’s heroine, Mary, as “brimming with colonial imperiousness,” and it’s hard to disagree. Indeed, young Mary is full of herself, condescending toward the Indian staff in her home, and utterly incapable of thinking beyond herself. But that’s not news to fans of this classic. The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett chronicles Mary’s growth into someone who cares. What makes this beloved book outdated is its portrayal of physical disability as something that can be controlled by the mind. Mary’s cousin, Colin, grows healthier once he decides to be happier, a problematic (and outdated) notion about illness and disability.
Instead of The Secret Garden, crack open one of Burnett’s other literary classics, Little Lord Fauntleroy. If you’re more of a modern-classic type of reader, check out these 25 best-selling books from the past decade.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Considered a sci-fi classic, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein is all about a human’s return to Earth after being raised by Martians. It’s a quirky coming-of-age tale with a sprinkle of sci-fi oddity, but the fun hasn’t aged well. The book is openly misogynistic, according to The Outline, with lines like “Nine times out of ten, if a girl gets raped, it’s partly her fault.”
Whether Stranger is forever stuck in the suffocating gender ideas of the ’60s or was never relevant to begin with, we recommend one of these alternatives: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, The Female Man, or one of these 13 bestselling sci-fi books of all time.