A few days ago, I wrote a post titled “What is a Classic?” I also mentioned that it was the first post in a two-part series about reading the classics. So, without further delay, here’s part II. We’ve spent some time defining the classics, now let me convince you why they matter.
1. Read the classics to develop your worldview.
One thing I love about classic books is their ability to present moral issues in a way that doesn’t seem confrontational. I feel like modern writers are often trying to offend or looking for ways to exclude a certain type of reader. Classic books deal with complex moral and political issues, but often they are presented to the reader in a more subtle way. You have time to weigh the values being presented to you. I’ve often found myself still thinking about the issues in classic books.
Another great feature of classic books is that they leave certain things to the imagination. There’s a big difference between the romance of Pride and Prejudice and the “romance” of Fifty Shades of Grey. The classics awaken your mind to the latent possibilities of language and description. Now, they aren’t all modest–think Lady Chatterly’s Loveror even Shakespeare, for that matter. But if you’re looking for a good love story without all of the sex, try a classic romance. Think Wuthering Heights or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Ultimately, classic books challenge your thinking about morality and what it means to be human. Think of yourself as having a conversation with the books that you read. I believe classic books are the best conversationalists–they answer back, they ask questions, and they present their own ideas. How many books are published today that have nothing to add to the conversation? How many of today’s books force their ideas on you and leave no room for disagreement?
2. Read the classics to be smarter.
My seventh grade students always asked for extra credit assignments, and they always groaned when I handed them a passage of Shakespeare to memorize. Why did I have them quoting Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Because Shakespeare makes you smarter. Don’t believe me? Check out this article.
Reading Shakespeare, (or any old book, I would argue) makes you think while you read. Yes, you can still escape into the world of the book, but you might need a dictionary to help you understand what’s going on. Chances are you’ll run into some words you don’t know. If you look those words up in a dictionary, they can become part of your vocabulary. I firmly believe if you encounter a new word and look it up, you’ll remember those words better—simply because you took the time to pause in your reading and find a definition. I can thank Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre for the word “ignominious.” What words will you learn just by reading through an old book?
Come on, guys. You exercise your bodies at the gym. Exercise your mind, too.
3. Read the classics to appreciate others.
What are the chances you’ll meet a Russian murderer who is wracked by guilt and paranoia? What are the odds you’ll encounter a reformed French criminal with superhuman strength? Have you ever, in your day-to-day life, met a prince on a mission to avenge his father’s murder?
Our lives are full of interesting people, but to some extent we will always be limited by our society and our culture. No matter how much traveling you do, you can’t travel back in time. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of classic literature is the variety of characters you will encounter. Reading classic literature shows you what it means to be human across the lines of time and place. If the earnest pleas of an English teacher aren’t enough, here’s an interesting study that shows literary fiction improves your empathy.
(Side note: If you have met any of those people I mentioned above, I want your life.)
Ready to get started? Heading to the bookstore now? Awesome!
If you’re still stuck trying to figure out what classic you should read, check back!
Classics or not, keep reading!