Why read classic literature?
The short version – you should read classic literature to see the world in a new light. You can learn more about the French Revolution reading a classic A Tale of Two Cities than cramming from a history book. Reading classic literature like Crime and Punishment tells you the circumstances which led to the Russian revolution. In classic literature, you’re able to piece together the story of the world. That is why you should ready classic literature.
Here’s the long version.
Last year, I decided to read A Tale of Two Cities. The book had been passed down to me as a legacy of my elder sister. A little context – I had taken a conscious decision to only read during my morning commute to work. Twitter and YouTube were relegated to the evening commute.
When I saw A Tale of Two Cities amongst the heap of books in my cupboard, I picked it up and noticed Charles Dickens’ name on the jacket. I was never a keen reader of classic literature, but I did remember enjoying the abridged version of Oliver Twist as a child. I packed A Tale of Two Cities in my bag and set out to work.
On my way to work on the morning train, I opened the book. It smelled like an old cutup piece of wood. Its yellowed pages and dark spots didn’t make my urge to read any stronger.
And then, I read the first lines.
Naturally, I was floored. Dickens had provoked me, thrown down the gauntlet and caught me off-guard.
Why is this story important? Read the first lines of the book and look around you. Charles Dickens, even while writing the book more than a century ago, is accurately describing our times.
Why Do We Read?
Before we get into reading classic books, it is important to discuss why we read in the first place.
Full disclosure, when I say ‘read’ in this entire piece, I am talking about reading fiction.
So, why do we read?
There is a very interesting quote from George RR Martin regarding this question.
“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”George RR Martin
This quote about sums up why it’s necessary to read.
Let’s say you’re an IT engineer working for a company in Bangalore and you happen to read books. You may have never been to London, but you know the damp smell of Baker Street on a Sunday afternoon. While you work in a boring cubicle, you know what it’s like sailing in the open seas hunting for a whale called Moby Dick. Perhaps you may have never fallen in love, but you know its pain because you know your friend Heathcliff very well.
You wouldn’t know any of these things if you never read a book.
Books, stories, fiction, tales; whatever designation you may want to give them – they change us. We read literature and fiction because it’s necessary to step out of ourselves once in a while.
A man who doesn’t read knows himself and himself alone. Books give us a route out of monotonous existence.
Why Should We Read Classic Literature?
Okay, so you should read. However, your next question will be why is it important to read classic literature? Why is it important to read old books which are difficult to comprehend?
I hear your problem. When I was reading A Tale of Two Cities, I kept coming across the word blunderbuss. At first, I assumed it was a type of vehicle. Only later did I realize it was something else.
Things like these are common and usually turn people away from reading classic literature. In the age of Twitter and Facebook, people no longer have the attention span to read long sentences or search the meaning of an outdated word.
The best way to answer why one should read classic literature is to count its benefits. Instead of making vague explanations, I list down the direct benefits of reading classic literature
Benefits of Reading Classic Literature
We already talked about the reasons and benefits of reading literature. What about classic literature?
What is so special about Herman Melville and Mark Twain that we should read Moby Dick and The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg?
The advantages of reading classic old literature are more specific. In the following points, I will answer why is reading classical literature important today.
Different Age. Different Perspective
I remember reading Huckleberry Finn as a ten year old. I had never heard of slavery as a concept.
Reading about Jim, the cruelty he suffered, and his strong bond with Huck, l learned about slavery and racism. Through the words of Mark Twain, I had a window into Middle America sitting in an urban city in India in the 21st century.
I may have not realized the complex nature of topics like racism and slavery, but I did know Jim was my friend. I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. Through Mark Twain, I learned I don’t need to care about the color of my friend’s skin.
In classic English literature, we don’t just see history, we see perspectives. When we read, we make friends, enemies, and alliances with characters. We see an old world through their eyes, a world that is flawed and immoral.
Every author is giving us a window into time. Dickens shows us the barbarity of Victorian institutions. Trollope shows us the inner workings of the same institutions. Twain tells us about human nature and societal evils. HG Wells opens the door to new worlds and the birth of new kinds of stories.
How often do you ask your friends if there is a good movie or TV series on Netflix? Choosing one randomly always seems like a big risk.
With classics, you cannot go wrong. All classics are called classics because they were the best books of their era. While it may be difficult for you to read some of these classics, they were extremely popular during their time.
Sherlock Holmes is a great example. When Doyle killed Holmes in a story of his, the public reacted angrily and took out campaigns to force the author to change his mind. Take a moment to consider this happened in the nineteenth century. This was a time with no rapid information dissemination.
Yet, people were crazy for good content, even then.
When you pick up a classic, you’re getting a guarantee that the story is good and popular. While it is possible it won’t suit your personal tastes, its inherent quality is beyond doubt. The question of ‘what classic book should I read‘ becomes less relevant when speaking of classic literature.
Be the Person who says ‘I’ve Read the Book’
You must feel irritated when you’re talking about a film and a friend says she’s read the book.
It’s time you levelled up and become the person who read the book.
Classic literature still has a lot of relevance. Shakespeare continues to be remade. Disney keeps rehashing old children classics. Little Women recently bagged an Oscar nomination. It’s not as if classic books are lying untouched. Studio executives always fall back on classic books because they’re a safe option. Why? Because they survived centuries!
Thus, there is still enough time for you to start reading classics and being the bookworm of your group.
The Value of a Challenge
Reading classic literature is challenging, and this is one big reason for doing the same.
We are a generation which lives for comfort. Most of our technology is based upon making difficult tasks easy. Google is a substitute for opening dictionaries, encyclopedias, and newspapers. Facebook and Twitter are substitutes for interacting with friends. Uber is a substitute for calling a cab.
Books? You still need to sit down and read them! Whether it’s on a Kindle or a real book, you have to give yourself time and read. In a life full of simple solutions, books are a challenge. Just as your body needs exercise, your mind needs books.
Challenge yourself. If reading a classic literature book is challenging, accept it. Keep a phone nearby to check the meaning of archaic words. Follow the characters and stay with the plot. After a while, you won’t need a dictionary. You will keep reading because it’s fun and absolutely worth it.
Control the Information Pipeline
Another benefit of reading classic literature is controlling the information pipeline.
Humans are not used to consuming the volume of information they currently do. For ages, our ancestors didn’t engage with content every hour of every day. They just sat around most of the time. When books came along, they began reading. However, reading is a slow process and not nearly as rapid as social media.
Reading classic literature can help ease the info overlay your brain is subjected to.
Reading Classic Literature – Conclusion
We understand reading old classic literature is not easy. However, this entire piece summarizes why it’s nevertheless necessary. In reading classic literature, you take a leap into understanding new perspectives.
We don’t mean to imply, through this piece, that popular literature is not as valuable as classic literature. I don’t think someone like Haruki Murakami or Stephen King is better or worse than Dickens. Every author has a place in the world of literature.
Why read classic literature?
The question should rather be why shouldn’t we read classic literature.