I’ve gone on at great length over the last few posts about a series of classic books I read this past year. The selections were made as part of a challenge my wife asked me to join her in. I gamely said sure.
I thought the challenge would be fun as I often read classic books. My shelves are filled with them. So are several boxes in my basement. I pick them up from tables with signs that say “free books” and from friends giving them away and at used book sales where, on Brown Bag Day, I cram as many as I can into a paper bag and happily leave with dozens of books I plan on sneaking into the house and onto my shelves so my wife doesn’t notice. It’s not like she’s against my reading, as I’ve said, she was the one who urged me to join her on this challenge. But, as a dedicated tosser, she doesn’t see the value in my having boxes of books I’ve never gotten to in the basement while I go out and acquire more. I get the argument in theory. Still, I always believe I’ll read them one day. That’s why I grab them.
So why do I read classics? What is the draw? And why did I read so many crappy classics this year?
In a famous 1986 essay in the New York Review of Books, Italian novelist Italo Calvino wrote about the importance of reading classics. For our purposes, my wife and I defined a classic book as something that’s at least 50 years old. Calvino defines a classic as one that never finishes saying what it has to say. He also writes, interestingly, that many people read classics too early in their lives — as students in high school — and are turned off by the experience. That I get. So he posits that classics are books that people re-read to see what they missed the first time. I get that, too. I’ve opened books I slogged my way through in high school to find, where once was a lot of boring words, a moving story, fantastic writing and insights on the world that are pertinent still today. Calvino goes farther, though: “To read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth.”
I would argue that Dickens, Austen, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to name just a few, didn’t write for children, they wrote for adults, and students are not always equipped to grasp what was meant for more mature minds. Still, it’s important that they be forced to read great works so they can start to realize that the world didn’t begin when they were born. People have lived, loved, fought, yearned, laughed and everything else you’ll find in a book, forever. This ties us to them in the great history of humanity.
As part of a playwriting class I used to teach high schoolers, I asked each student to find a play they enjoyed and introduce it to the class. One student chose Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and about halfway through his synopsis, some student yelled out, “Oh, they did this on ‘Family Guy.'” Other students chimed in on other shows that appropriated the famous plot of 10 people trapped on a deserted island being murdered one by one. They knew the parody before they knew the original, and because of that, the original held no allure for them. I believe that is a great loss.
Today, writers build on what has come before: The movie “Clueless” was Jane Austen’s “Emma” reset in LA in the 1980s. Authors from Ruth Rendell to those who write books for teens, base their plots on great literature; knowing the basis may lead you to guess the ending, but it also enriches the reading experience. And how many TV shows at this time of year use the plot of “A Christmas Carol” for inspiration? Even the way Harry Potter is treated by the family members who took him in is reminiscent of how Jane Eyre’s aunt and cousin treated her as a child.
Knowing where we were, as written in novels, helps us understand where we are and where we’re headed. That’s what makes knowing and reading the classics so important.
So read them, once in a while, even if it’s out of duty. You probably won’t like them all (just read my posts and see that I didn’t and I usually like reading classics) but you’ll find one book, or a particular author who speaks to you and your experience, and you’ll find yourself stronger for it.
Recent studies have shown that people who read fiction are more empathetic, more willing to look at both sides of an issue and, in general, nicer people. Better understanding of others, yourself and your place in the world is really what reading good literature is all about. So do it.