I had originally titled this post “Why You Should Read the Classics”, but then a friend reminded me how much we both hate the word ‘should’.
So please know, you are under no obligation to read ‘the classics’. I firmly believe that reading is best when it is joyful, a ‘want to’ rather than a ‘have to’ experience. That’s part of the reason I now hate almost every book I had to study in English in high school! It took me nearly a decade to start reading ‘the classics’ again and I am still re-learning to love them. Read whatever you want and enjoy doing it.
That said, here are my thoughts in praise of reading ‘the classics’.
(Look, I’m just going to go ahead and stop putting quotation marks around ‘classic’. We all know what I mean.)
When I talk about classics, I don’t just mean any old book. To me, a classic has a timelessness to it. It might have been written 30 years ago or 300 years ago, but a true classic touches on issues that are still relevant today. It has resonated with generations of readers. Why? Because I think human nature is also timeless, in a way. Both the wonderful and the terrible parts! This is one of the reasons I enjoy reading the classics: because they are still relevant, and can provide a different perspective on today’s issues. At the very least, they can remind us that there’s nothing new under the sun.
I’m also not going to pretend that everything that’s considered a classic is good quality - there’s a fair amount of luck and privilege in what gets to become a classic. But I think there are benefits to reading (critically, with our eyes wide open), even those classics which turn out to be kiiiinda problematic. Classics can teach us a lot about the time and place they were written, and if we read critically, we can learn an awful lot about the worldview of the author and their subjects. Thinking about how that time and place and culture has influenced our current culture can help us to gain a deeper understanding of the roots of current worldviews.
Those words though…
On the other hand, sometimes they are good quality, and have stood the test of time because generations of readers have fallen in love with brilliantly crafted sentences, truly memorable characters, and engaging plots. There’s a reason that Netflix is full of adaptations and the internet is saturated with quotes from classic authors. Another thing I love about those words? Often the way the author has written forces you to slow down - they weren’t writing for our 21st century attention spans. Maybe that’s occasionally frustrating, but maybe sometimes that’s a good thing.
Whether they’re good quality or not, I honestly believe that there’s value in reading classic literature. There’s so much opportunity for insight into the past and the present. It can highlight what’s changed, or even make you realise that, really, nothing has!
Need more classics in your life? Why not sign up for the NovelTea Book Club newsletter?