Why We Should Read Classics

Whenever someone mentions reading classic literature, the response is usually the same: why would you want to read THAT? Wouldn't you rather read something easier? Something new? Children everywhere groan when their teachers pass out a classic text by authors such as Shakespeare, Twain, Bronte and Fitzgerald. They don't want to read those "dusty old books;" they think they are boring and outdated. Even today, as a grownup, when a friend, family member or co-worker sees that I am reading something like War and Peace or Jane Eyre, I get a look of bewilderment at my choice of reading.

Personally, I have always enjoyed reading classics. From a young age, I remember reading the Great Illustrated Classics of such works as The Count of Monte Cristo, Treasure Island and Little Women. These were my first window into the world of classic literature. By the time I reached middle and high school, I was enamored with classics and couldn't wait to see what text the teacher would assign next. One of the first I remember reading for school was The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton; I devoured it in the 8th grade way ahead of the set reading schedule. As a freshman I was introduced to the works of William Shakespeare through Romeo and Juliet. Though not my favorite Shakespeare work, it did open my eyes and my world to a whole new kind of classical literature: dramatic plays. By senior year we had traveled the world through literature: Frankenstein, Julius Caesar, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Rebecca, Jane Eyre... the list goes on and on.  Today, my love of classical literature has only grown stronger; I have an entire bookshelf in my home devoted entirely to classics, and with each shelf double-filled, it is still overflowing with some of the world's greatest works.

So, why should we read classics? Well, for starters, classic novels are a gateway into the past. Novels written in times long past allow us a window into what the world looked like a hundred, two hundred, even a thousand years ago. None of us lived during these times, so our only outlet to the past is through books, and none reflect the time in which they were written better than novels. The events and stories that take place within these novels cannot be replicated today; the only way to experience them is to read about them. They present contemporary issues that plagued the world in which they are written/set and give us insight into how these issues affected everyday people through the characters and settings they depict. Lots of times, the novels are set in real places, so it is interesting to see how such places have changed over time. The world has changed and evolved, but many of the issues discussed in classic novels are still relevant today. We can use classical literature to see not only how racism, feminism, morality, poverty, inequality, nationalism, social injustice and other such issues were dealt with during the time of the novel, but also how these issues have evolved/changed (or in some cases haven't changed) through the course of history. These comparisons can give us an idea of society in the past, tie it to the present, and maybe give us a glimpse of where these issues may be headed in the future.

Classic literature also allows readers to see how novels have evolved and changed as the centuries have passed. The Epic of Gilgamesh is certainly not the same book as Great Expectations, and the progression of character and plot development has definitely changed over the years. Even works by the same author, written at different points in their life, can be drastically different. Authors typically evolve with each novel, and sometimes even branch out and experiment with new genres or techniques. It's easy to see changes such as these in classic works because a lot of the time the author has passed and there are only a set number of books by him/her.

The biggest complaint I hear when talking to others about classic books is: they are too hard to read and understand. In most cases, it isn't the plot of the story that is complex and hard to comprehend; rather, it is how the book is written that makes it difficult. Writing styles have evolved in the centuries since novel writing began, and depending on when and where the classic is set, the language and style may be more difficult to understand than others. If English is your first language, then translated works such as Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment may be more difficult than works written in English, and vice versa. Classic novels can introduce you to words and phrases that are not prevalent to today's culture or not a part of your own culture, and can also expand your vocabulary far beyond what you imagined. Our language today had evolved from the same language presented in classic texts, and some of these phrases may be archaic, but they almost always tie into how we use language today.

Older, more ancient texts that have been translated/transliterated multiple times may also be quite confusing, since it is hard to decide which translation or version is the best to go with with. For example, I am not a huge fan of poetry, so when I purchased copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey, I chose a translation in prose rather than leaving the format in the traditional epic poem. I will still get the narrative but it will be in a format I can read more easily and I can fully comprehend the plot rather than having to decipher the meaning from poetry. Another good method to reading classics, if you are having trouble with the language or the author's writing style, is to listen to them on audio. Sometimes hearing the words read aloud rather than seeing them on the page, hearing how the author has constructed each sentence, can make it easier to understand what the author is trying to say. Whatever your method, find an author whose style you like and start there; once you are comfortable reading that type of classic, experiment with other authors and writing styles. You may just surprise yourself with a new favorite.

Reading classic novels offers a plethora of new opportunities to learn about the past and people and civilizations that you cannot experience today.  Diving into a classic can truly be an adventure, and you just may learn a few things, about life, the world and about yourself, along the way. Don't be afraid of classic books; if you find the one for you, you have truly discovered treasure, one that can be mined for a lifetime.