Why Choose to Read The Classics

April 29, 2016
A friend and I have a running disagreement.  We both adore reading but we disagree on taste.  To him, the act of reading is everything, what is read is immaterial.  I disagree.  Yes, reading is better than illiteracy, but not all written works are equal. Quality is one reason why some works disappear why others are revered and reread for centuries.  This isn’t due to an edict of teachers or a ruling from the some vicious, artsy elite.  It’s because some stories are so well formed they become enduring works of art, works that instruct as well as entertain.  They are the classics and there are good reasons to  they should be read.

  • Classics are the building blocks of literature. Willa Cather once wrote, “There are only two or three human stories and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they’d never happened before.” If that’s true, those stories have also become the backbone of world literature but some versions are told so well, they become the standards other writers follow. For example, once The Odyssey and The Epic of Gilgamesh jointly created the perfect template for road stories, authors have been stealing from and writing variations on these two ever since.  Here are two heroes  who, for whatever reasons, can’t take the short way back home. Instead, they are waylaid by Gods and demi-Gods, attacked by horrendous creatures, seduced and distracted by incredible females (can you imagine a modern man trying to convince his wife of this story?  ‘Honestly, hon, I was on my home with the milk, when I was kidnapped by nymph!  No, not nymphomaniac, nymph!  Well, she did seem pretty warm for my form but honey, honest, I was true to you. Anyway that’s where I was, for at least seven years.’)  Every hero fighting against nature, every young person on a quest, all the rags-to-riches plots come from classic stories.  If you want to know where literature is going, you have to know where it’s been.  And the road to through the past was paved with literary classics.

  • Characters for the ages – Every few years someone talks about another adaptation of Vanity Fair.   What, you thought Vanity Fair was a just brand of underwear or the name of a magazine? Puh-leeze!  Long before that stuff was sold, the phrase was famous.  Actually, it came from two classics. First was Pilgrim’s Progress, a man on a quest story, and the fair was a place that catered to humanity’s basest hungers. Then Thackeray used it as a title for his wonderful “novel without a hero”.  Here is one of lit’s greatest anti-heroines, the aptly named Becky Sharp. In a society stuffed to the gills with rogues, thieves and crooks, Becky is the girl to watch. She lies, steals, seduces and blackmails her way up the ladder of society and the best part of it is, we love watching her doing it. Thackeray was smart enough to create a “good-girl” character to serve as a counterpart and a plot that frustrates some of Becky’s plans but Vanity Fair gets read and re-read because people adore Becky Sharp. She’s adventurous, amoral, smart and the last person you want to meet in real life but she’s a wonder on the page.  
  • It’s a matter of mind-nutrition. Look, we all have limited time to read.  And books nurture the mind and the soul.  So, why spend your time and money on candy-floss stories with dimensionless characters and pointless plots?  Pick up something with real substance and flavor to it, like Their Eyes were Watching God.  For subtlety, take a gander at Howard’s End.  Shoot, pick up the Bible or Shakespeare and absorb some of that marvelous language.  No, it’s not how people talk today but it is how they feel and look how imagery and rhythm are packed into each line! You learn poetry, philosophy and art with every scene and psalm. These are the words that stick with you, the ones that offer comfort when you are in despair and counsel when you’re confused.  
  • Economics Classics in the public domain can often be bought at a cheaper price. Not all, because the list is always expanding but when I was younger and the budget was tight, I learned to shop the classics shelf first.  They were cheaper than the best-sellers and, almost always, a terrific story.  Classics are the best bang for the buck.

I’m not saying everyone should limit their reading to books sanctified by narrow group of people. Great stories, like great cooking can come from any place on the globe.  But it’s ridiculous to avoid reading quality work because it’s considered a “classic”.  That would be like refusing diamonds from Tiffany’s so you can wear rhinestones instead.

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