Why Read Classics?

An online discussion the other day got me thinking: what’s the point of reading classics? If you want to catch literary references in other written works that are less work to read can’t you just read a bunch of synopses? Why slog through The Scarlet Letter when you could be reading Fifty Shades of Grey? What’s the purpose of reading moldy old works anyway? They don’t have any connection to the lives of people in the 21st century.

Here’s my shot at an answer:

All books give us a glimpse into the time in which they were written, often more thoroughly than reviewing the history of that era will do. History is more than just a collection of dates and names; it’s interconnected stories about culture and social evolution and huge personalities. The literature of a particular time and place shows us the period through the eyes and language of someone who lived it, which can give us a much more complete view than just learning facts.

But classics aren’t just about history. The literary works often considered “classics” have lasted through the ages because they address issues that are universal and independent of era and nationality. A friend pointed out that one of the things she loves about reading classics is that the same basic plot is repeated over and over again. She enjoys seeing the ideas in Jane Austen’s Emma appearing in different guises and in different contexts in many different works of fiction. She derives more pleasure from reading contemporary works because she can see the links back to those earlier works.

Another thing that makes a work of literature a classic and that makes it worthwhile to keep on reading is they are, by and large, examples of high quality writing. I’m convinced that reading good (eloquent, concise, meaningful) writing helps us create good (eloquent, concise, meaningful) writing. This is a main reason I’m embarking on my own classics challenge: I want to get inside the brains of writers whose work has touched people throughout centuries and see if I can tap into a bit of that immortality so I can put it in my own writing.

Not every classic is going to touch every person at every moment of their lives. I read Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities when I was a 14-year-old with a rudimentary knowledge of the French Revolution and a subscription to Seventeen magazine, but I still remember being moved to tears by the closing lines: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.” Two years later, I found the experience of reading The Great Gatsby soul sucking, but I completely connected with The Sound and the Fury (or perhaps I just thought I connected with it when I actually totally missed the symbolism—either way, I loved reading it). In recent years, I’ve been surprised to find just how modern Madame Bovary and Don Quixote seem. My scientist spouse is working his way through Don Quixote one section each night, and I can hear him laughing out loud at it from all the way down the hall.

What qualifies as a classic is very subjective. The category can contain Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamozov, Charlotte’s Web, On the Road, The Odyssey, Animal Farm, Leaves of Grass, and Much Ado About Nothing. There’s so much variety that if two people each say, “I’m reading 50 classics,” there might not be a single book in common on their lists. To see this in action, check out the links to some of the reading lists of members of The Classics Club. Or, if you dare, get a few literature majors on the subject. They have been going at it hammer and tongs for centuries over which books deserve to be called classics.

The specific titles vary, but many times, unless you’re reading The Pilgrim’s Progress, reading The Classics means reading character-driven rather than plot-driven books. This can seem slow until one grows accustomed to the subtleties of the language or to skimming in self-defense. Slowing down and focusing closely enough to do this is, I think, valuable. It’s like comparing a cross-country hike to a cross-country drive to a cross-country flight: you end up the same place, but the journey is entirely different.

What do you think? Why read classics? Or conversely, why avoid reading works designated as “classics”?

7 comments

  1. ahamin · January 10, 2013

    The reason why I believe that most classical works are better than most of today’s works is because, unlike today, writing was hard, using a pen or just a type writer was really a tiresome process to go through. So if someone wants to write at that time, he or she wouldn’t do that unless they have something to offer.
    Now, most people write so they can be called writers.

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    • CJ · January 10, 2013

      That’s an interesting idea—good writing takes effort and with computers and dictation software and self-publishing options and user-freindly blogging platforms it’s easier for people to write and distribute their writing without as much effort. I don’t think that writing in longhand necessarily reduces the quality of a person’s writing nor do I think that there aren’t “classics” being written today, but I can see your point. I don’t get the impression that most of the bloggers I encounter have any interest in honing their writing craft. They want to express an opinion and get feedback. This is true of me much (most?) of the time, too. Although I want to actively improve my writing, my primary goal in blogging is connection and conversation; the “honing my craft” is secondary. (And one only needs to read some authors’ defensive replies to negative reviews of their books on Goodreads to see that not all people who have published books are interested in honing their craft, either.)

      Thanks so much for facilitating this conversation by leaving a comment, ahamin!

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    • Bob · April 3, 2014

      I would suggest the same is true for photography – is a person that takes a thousand pictures at a photo-shoot then uses a computer to “improve” the best of those images comparable to the great photographers of the past who had minutes to capture the perfect light and had the expense of film and developing limiting them? There was a brilliant Canadian T.V. production “Naked in the House” where a number of photographers were invited to compete, they were allowed one camera and one lens and a limited number of shots, a model and location were provided but the photographers did not get to preview the location or meet the model before and they had a limited amount of time to get their (i think it was five) shots. Perhaps a similar competition could be developed for writers… hand written manuscript, specific number of chapters/month (like Dickens in the periodicals), etc.

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  2. Melanie R. Meadors · January 9, 2013

    LOL I couldn’t make it past the first page of 50 Shades. The sloppy writing distracted me way too much from the story–I couldn’t concentrate on it at all (so I guess I’ll never find out what the spatula was about…).

    As far as “they don’t have any connection to the lives of people in the 21st century,” like you point out, I think part of my definition of a classic is that it DOES. These books (meaning a book on someone’s classics list, and as you said, that list is probably different for every person) touch us on a visceral, universal level. It doesn’t matter when it was written, or what the setting is, when we read a classic, we see something of ourselves.

    There was a conversation a few weeks ago where someone who had studied the classics observed that “To Kill a Mockingbird” might be obsolete (I’m not sure if he meant in him home, or in general, but anyway). Another person said, “That’s a classic–I have to teach that/keep that/read that!” when they hadn’t read it since high school. That really made me think, and I realized that many people do tend to have their classics lists based on what OTHER people tell them are classics. They kind of just blindly follow what they are told, and I think that almost goes against what the classics themselves teach us. I most definitely think we should read these books suggested by others, but for the purpose of deciding for ourselves whether those books are *our* classics, personally. Is it a book I can read time and again? Does it speak to me, does its message linger long after I’ve finished it? Am I a part of this story?

    OK, hopefully that all made sense. Just realized that I’m pretty exhausted.

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    • CJ · January 10, 2013

      I think a personal list of classics makes quite a lot of sense. But I will say, too, that there are books that I can see as classics even though they didn’t touch me personally. Often it seems like people want experiences and entertainment handed to them without any work on their part, the result being that if they try something and it’s remotely tedious, they try to avoid that tediousness in the future at all costs (bold and opinionated statement not based on research but on biased experience). That’s fine for one’s individual reading choices, but there seems to be a tendency to dismiss the value of the entire category entirely (it can’t be that they don’t have patience so it has to be that the thing they tried is inherently lacking in value). Once I made fun of musical theater (and of my friend who was—still is—a big fan of musical theater) based on my limited experience with it. And then I saw Sweeney Todd and loved it and was so embarrassed for having made fun of musical theater as a whole and of my friend for loving it. I still don’t like all musical theater, but who says I have to like all musical theater for there to be any value in it? So far I’ve not had the same experience with opera. Although I do like individual songs from specific operas, I haven’t found an opera that can keep my attention for as loooooong as operas last. (That’s probably because opera sucks, though. It’s the exception.)

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      • Melanie R. Meadors · January 10, 2013

        Yes, I think you’re absolutely right. And I think that’s where the value of SWB and other folks (I don’t know where it came from originally, maybe the book “How to Read a Book”) suggestion of reading the books on a classics list 2 or three times, on different levels. Only then can you really tell if it is a book that should be on your classics list. You have to put the work in first, and then make the choice. Otherwise, heck, you’d have people voting books down immediately for their length.

        Another things that I found interesting–I experience books completely differently as an adult vs. as a teen in school. Even though I was a serious student, I was trying to accomplish the goal of public school, which is to get a good letter grade. In the rush involved to do that, I didn’t have time to read the books in a way to really get stuff out of them. Even in AP English, I had an agenda with each book. Honestly, looking back, it was a complete waste of time, and all it did was make me hate some of those books. IS it a waste of time to make kids read heavy classics in high school? I mean, even Charlotte’s Web, they have a set curriculum for it, and if you didn’t get what the teacher got from it, you were “wrong.” They just analyzed everything to DEATH. I suppose they did it to another extent in college too. You never have the chance to let the book speak to you on a personal level because you’re so busy searching for the teacher’s interpretations.

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      • CJ · January 10, 2013

        I remember reading T.H. White’s The Once and Future King in tenth grade. I wrote a paper on it in which I mentioned a scene that, I thought, indicated that there was some love in Morgause’s heart for Mordred (if I’m even getting the names right so many eons since I read it). She wrote in the margin, “Wrong!” So, yes, no room for alternate interpretations. And that didn’t even do the job of teaching me to give adequate support for any claims I make.

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