Why Read the Classics?

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Literary Lady is on vacation this week, but here’s a favorite question from the archives!

Dear Literary Lady,

Why read the classics?

-Prefers Contemporary, Brooklyn NY.

Dear Prefers Contemporary,

Italo Calvino tackles this question in his collection of literary criticism, Why Read the Classics. I cannot pretend for a second that I can provide a more comprehensive answer than Mr. Calvino, but I can provide a very simple answer: The classics will make you love reading even more.

When you read the classics, you’re reading books that have had a pivotal role in shaping the way we read and write today. Books aren’t written or read in a vacuum. They’re woven by writers and consumed by readers with the influence of centuries of writing behind us. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, reading a book is never an isolated incident but part of a tradition.

The classics are the milestones of our literary tradition. Some classics rise to prominence as the shining example of a movement (like realism or romanticism) or a genre (like science fiction or historical fiction). They sparked a literary trend because they did it first or they did it best. Other classics become so because they push the envelope. By breaking from tradition and questioning established ideas, these books became markers of creative rebellion and dissent.

How does all this make you love reading more? When you familiarize yourself with the classics, you start to understand where a lot of other books fit in. You’ll begin to identify influences and references in your reading that you weren’t able to before, or didn’t even notice. It’s like developing a sudden appreciation of wine—different notes open up to your palate, you detect hidden floral, fruity, or oaky elements, and you’re better able to articulate your tastes.

Reading the classics can also help you appreciate your favorite books even more. When you return to them, you’ll unpack depths that you didn’t know were there. Elements of the book that initially seemed arbitrary to you may now seem deliberate and clever. You may start to see meaning in the characters’ names, the author’s choice of descriptive words, their fixation on certain themes.

Reading the classics will also help you identify your favorite writers’ literary influences. You’ll see how the classics contributed to their style, subject, and themes. You’ll understand literary allusions your favorite author makes, catch on to little “inside jokes,” and start to view authors as part of a rich literary legacy. You’ll see how your favorite writers see themselves—as one paying homage to another writer, as a renegade who defies conventions of prose, or as an innovator of literary styles.

Here’s another way of looking at it:  Think about reading as traveling the world. In your travels, the classics are those must-see historical sites that you hear about and see in dozens of reproductions—the Great Wall, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, the pyramids. Like these historical sites, the classics have withstood the test of time, are part of an incredible heritage, and can change your worldview entirely.

Love and paperbacks,
Literary Lady

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  • Miss MSU 2010

    I try to read at least one classic novel a month. Not only does this practice enhances my diction, I find that reading the classics also sharpens my analytical skills.

  • Nicole L. Mack

    I rarely bother with contemporary literature. I’m a classic girl 95% of the time.

    • David Lake

      I am with you, Nicole. Life is too short for fashion.

  • David Lake

    I have found that reading classics not only makes me a better thinker and
    better writer, but they make me more sympathetic to humanity. As a lover of
    nature I spend as much time outdoors as I can and tend to be somewhat misanthropic, but great literature and works of beauty that have stood the test of time redeem my faith in my species. Hoping to meet friends with a similar take, I now lead “litearature hikes” via PM Hikers group on meetup near Ventura County/Los Angeles, CA where participants are asked to read a classic, hike to a lovely vista, and discuss the work over wine and cheese. This combines all the things I
    love (today we will discuss “To Kill a Mockingbird”, next month “The Good
    Earth”, and have discussed “Pnin,” “The Gambler”, Kafka stories, some well known classics and lesser known ones) in one fantastic day.

    However, many hikers show up who have not read the book. I would
    like advice on polite ways to tell them that reading is required to hike, but
    not turn them off. Any thoughts? Also, if readers here are interested in joining, go to PM Hikers on
    meetup and search for hikes led by Dave, “Literary leader.” We will have Salinger, Tolstoy, Vonnegut and others in the coming months.

    • Andrew P. Evans

      My advice: Don’t even address it. You speak volumes already through your own enjoyment of the literature.

  • Janelle Poe

    How does this take into account the countless minorities whose work is not considered “classic” because they were being brutally oppressed? How does this not further a colonial, patriarchal approach to creativity and exclusionary brilliance? I do read the classics and try to integrate them to have a more diverse understanding but the obsession with such books is elitist and perpetuates a misaligned historical perspective. In terms of American classics, it’s pretty much guaranteed that I will have to read the word nigger more than necessary (i.e. at all) and hear romanticized versions of antebellum or pre-Civil Rights era living. How can the desire to learn from gifted and experienced writers be framed in a more inclusive way?

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