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”?