Why we all ought to read the classics

Is more reading on your list of 2018 goals? It’s on mine, and I know several people committed to reading 50 books this year—that’s impressive! Good novels are published all the time, and reading is undoubtedly a more worthy pursuit than aimlessly surfing the web.

But today I want to promote reading the classics. Wait, wait, don’t close your internet browser yet! Classics aren’t always hard to read, and classics are classic for a reason. If you want to dive into some of the most sublime writing in existence, classics are worth the effort.

Maybe you’re thinking, That’s easy for you to say. You’re an English-y person. But classics are for everyone. It’s a misconception that only the studious can understand “literature.” So let’s debunk that.

When I graduated high school, I knew I wanted to be an English major in college, and I remember thinking, “I don’t know if I’ll survive as an English major—can I even understand the classics?” The answer for me and for you is YES.

So if you’re considering something from the canon of great lit, might I suggest a place to start? Modern American literature—that’s text written from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries and heavily influenced by WWI and WWII—are easier to understand than, say, romantic literature. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Modern American lit is based in reality. Because Modernism followed romantic literature, it was a reaction to idealism. Modern American lit is based in reality; that means stories are gritty, and they don’t all end happily. It’s real life at its finest. And because of that, it’s relatable.
  2. Modern American authors rely on showing, not telling. That means you’ll encounter more paragraphs that show you a scene and the characters in it, rather than telling you what to think. It’s the difference between “she was filled with felicity” and “the girl smiled and stifled a giggle.” You get more objectivity and less of the florid language you read (and roll your eyes about) in romantic literature.
  3. Modern American themes are familiar. Because the two World Wars took place squarely in the middle of this period, themes like “man’s inhumanity to himself” and “man’s inhumanity to man” are common. Those themes absolutely ring true today.

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For those considering a foray into the world of classics, I always recommend John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. These books are so well written that you might find yourself pausing mid-page just to revel in the magic of a perfectly written sentence. It’s delicious. While reading East of Eden, I sometimes went back and spent several minutes analyzing why a single sentence felt so flawless. Steinbeck’s work is a masterpiece.

Tell me, do you read the classics, or do you stick with contemporary lit? Of course, current novels can and are well written too. But like everything else, balance is best. And if you do end up trying out a classic, please let me know what you think. I love talking books with friends. •

Feature photo via Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

 

 

10 thoughts

  1. I somehow skipped reading a lot of the classics in high school, so I’ve been trying to read more books I’ve heard of but have never read. I just finished my first Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse 5. I knew it was a noteworthy book but knew zero about it otherwise. I was pretty surprised that aliens featured prominently. At one point I checked to make sure I was reading the right Slaughterhouse 5, lol.
    I lean towards non-fiction primarily though. And I love a good memoir, as they manage to be nonfictions that read like novels.

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  2. Thank you for this post! There are a lot of myths about literature and stereotypes about lit-lovers. I read Anna Karenina when I was 14 and I knew then that I wanted to pursue literature and English in college. Well, now I’m about to start on my journey towards my English degree. 🙂

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  3. I didn’t love East of Eden. Some parts were a bit dark for me. I did however like some of themes in the book-we can choose to do good and be good.

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    1. It is definitely has its share of darkness—I haven’t read a more evil character than Cathy/Kate. Sometimes we have to wade through the bad stuff to get to the good themes you mentioned, and sometimes the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. I was so frustrated a few years ago when I got 200-ish pages into a book and had to stop because a sex scene was so gratuitous. That feels like a royal waste of time.

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  4. I will always remember reading the book “Rebecca.” I was a junior in high school and chose it from a list of books the teacher required us to read from. That was the day I knew that I loved reading!

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  5. I love a good book and how it can be a little escape from life. I have East of Eden on my list of books to read soon and I can’t wait! I love talking books with friends, too!

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