This is the first post in a two-post series about reading the classics.
If you’re like most people, you lost all interest in reading “the classics” in high school when you were forced to muddle through The Scarlet Letter or Julius Caesar. Well, I am a strong supporter of the classics. Reading old, difficult books teaches you to persevere in your reading. Now, I’m not saying you should suffer through books you don’t really enjoy. I am saying it’s important to learn that a good book often takes more than fifteen pages to get you hooked. Persevering through Crime and Punishment or Moby Dick builds character. So, before I show you my arguments for reading the classics, let’s start by defining what I’m talking about when I say “classics.”
What is a classic?
This is a trickier question than it may seem. Most readers have their own definition of a classic. Most would also give you a different definition of what books are in the literary “canon.”
What is my definition of a classic? I would define a classic book as a book that has endured for some period of time and is considered noteworthy or important by a large group of people.
As you can see, my definition leaves a pretty wide margin for personal preference. Has Harry Potter endured? Yes. Is it considered noteworthy by a large group? Yes. So, would I consider it a classic? Probably. Has Fifty Shades of Grey endured? Unfortunately. Is it considered noteworthy by a large group of people? Tragically, yes. Would I consider it a classic? No.
Why not? Well, for me, there’s something about a classic that is hard to describe. It’s something inside the book—some sort of internal morality that makes a book great. Having never read Fifty Shades of Grey, I can’t say for sure that there is no moral value there, but I’m pretty sure it’s scarce.
Don’t take my word for it! Here are some other opinions on what makes a book a classic:
- “‘Classic-‘ a book which people praise and don’t read.”
- “A Classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”
- “When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.”
- “….a good book can teach you about the world and about yourself. You learn more than how to read better; you also learn more about life. You become wiser. Not just more knowledgeable – books that provide nothing but information can produce that result. But wiser, in the sense that you are more deeply aware of the great and enduring truths of human life.”
–Mortimer J. Adler