How I Became a Classics Reader

First of all, I wish you all a very Happy New Year!

I’m very excited that I now get to live through the 20’s. Makes me want to absorb some classic novel from the jazz age such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I have 1o years to get to that.

I truly wish that life continues or becomes exactly what you want it to be. I will always believe that happiness can be found in this life, but I don’t believe it comes easy, and is even harder to keep. But it is there, and reading is one of the places it can be found. And for me that means in the classics. The books that add to your life and help you understand the world better.

This blog is kind of a part 1 of 2. The second part will try to answer the question ‘Why Read the Classics?’

For this post though, I would like to provide the background on how I became a classics reader.

It started in 2011. At that time I was very interested in making more of life (as of course I always am) and was listening to a lot of personal development CD’s.

It was during the summer of 2011 that I came across a series that changed my life called ‘The Art of Exceptional Living’ by Jim Rohn.

Jim Rohn was regarded as the foremost business philosopher within the United States and his advice and wisdom on leading an exceptional life is timeless and memorable. The chapter in the series that I loved the most though was the session called ‘Filling Your Reservoir of Knowledge’ which was all about how to gain wisdom.

Rohn spoke passionately of the books you must read, which I did read but would not regard as a classic (Think and Grow Rich – Napoleon Hill) and how your reading must be balanced – “You got to have a book on Gandhi, and you have got have a book on Hitler”.

QUICK DIGRESSION – If you look at my 300 book list from my previous blog post, you will notice that there is a book on Hitler (by Ian Kershaw) but I have balanced this out with the Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela.

It was a book recommendation in this section that was life-changing, as Rohn suggested reading ‘How to Read a Book’ by Mortimer Adler. He suggested that book because not only does Adler give advice on how to get the best out of a book, but it also contains a list of the greatest works ever written (as also mentioned in my previous blog post).

I bought a copy of How to Read a Book and fell in love immediately with the idea of reading the great books. Adler and the co-writer of the second edition I read, Charles Van Doren, write convincingly about how reading the classics leads to growth of the mind and increases our understanding.

I do love lists, and kept reading the list of great books within the book again and again and again. Towards the end of 2011 I had committed to the idea of reading as many books as possible on the great books list, and began 2012 by reading the first book on the list – The Iliad by Homer.

Now, if I was advising someone where to start on reading the classics, I would not start with The Iliad. It is undoubtedly a timeless epic, but it is a difficult read as well, especially the translation I read by E.V. Rieu (one of the first Penguin Classics that existed).

But I did not know any better at the time, and wasn’t thinking about enjoyment anyway, I had to read books like this, if I wanted to grow as a person. And I still believe that to be true, but the next book I read, The Odyssey, also by Homer (cough, cough, probably not actually the same author as The Iliad), was truly an enjoyable read and is perhaps my favourite book.

So I was already hooked on reading the classics after reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, but I learnt that it would not be automatic that I would persevere at reading a classic, just because I felt like I had a duty to.

The next book I read after The Odyssey was Early Socratic Dialogues by Plato, but I gave up about two thirds of the way through. It wasn’t that I lost interest in Plato, I just found it difficult to read, as the book was mixed with running commentary in between the passages that just does not sit well with me.

I did not give up on Plato though, and the next book I read was The Last Days of Socrates, another book that became a favourite of mine.

Since then, I continue to be enthralled, fascinated and overwhelmed by the magnificence of reading the classics. I have been to Plato’s Republic, Thomas More’s Utopia, the war of 1812 in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the battlefields of England in Shakespeare’s history plays, and Paris in the 1860’s through one of my favourite recent authors, Emile Zola.

I do not need to be sold on reading the classics, I have loved every year I have been a classics reader. But I still wonder why more people do not the read the classics, and what can be done to encourage more people to read them. That is what I will look at in the next blog post.

6 thoughts on “How I Became a Classics Reader

  1. Did you know, Pete, that Mortimer Adler’s co-author, Charles Van Doren, wrote a fine book titled, The Joys of Reading. In this book, Van Doren covers 210 of his favorite books, plays, poems and essays. It is written in an engaging and friendly tone which welcomes the reader in.

    Let me not fail to mention my all-time favorite, The Lifetime Reading Plan, 3rd edition, by Clifton Fadiman; a seminal work and not to be missed by any means. It is a guide to over 100 great writers and thinkers and is dedicated to Mr. Adler. The plan begins with The Iliad, a book you tackled early-on. A plus for me is that the plan is not heavy on science like Adler, but, at any rate, we’re not obligated to read those. In addition, I would like to recommend all (seven, I think) of Michael Dirda’s books about books, especially Bound to Please, and Classics For Pleasure.

    My Reading Life by Pat Conroy contains enthusiastic essays on Look Homeward Angel, War and Peace, and Gone With the Wind, and other favorites dealt with at lesser length.

    If you are already familiar with all of these authors, then I apologize for the redundancy. Of course, you will find many of the works these men talk about reflected in your own excellent list of over 300 books.

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    1. Thanks George, there are certainly 3 books there that I have now learnt I want to read; Lifetime Reading Plan, Joys of Reading and Bound to Please, they all seem something I would enjoy. I really do want to read more books about books, as I just love gaining inspiration for reading and being introduced to new books I hadn’t previously thought of. This is how one’s reading list grows. I guess that was why I wanted to create this blog as well, just so people who love the classics can talk about the classics.

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  2. Your enthusiasm shines through and is encouraging to see. I’m so glad you’re interested in those suggestions. John Cowper Powys, who knew Thomas Hardy, has some long and enthusiastic books about books that I’ll bet you would thoroughly enjoy. I could talk from now on about any of these works with a sympathetic person. It is good to be part of what Adler (I think it’s Adler) calls “the great conversation” and I’m glad that you welcome commentary.

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    1. Thanks again George, I admittedly had not heard of John Cowper Powys but I will certainly look him up now. Yes I think it was Adler who coined ‘The Great Conversation’.

      As I have said in other parts of this blog, this blog is entirely for people who want to talk and share their love of the classics, and I am so glad I have found people like yourself who are keen to do that.

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  3. I’m very eager to share love of the classics, Pete, and to learn from others who are more capable. If you look up Powys’ The Pleasures of Literature be aware that it is also published under another title which I’m sorry I don’t remember. Also, that he wrote several books, as I previously mentioned, containing lengthy appreciations of classical authors which I hope you will have time for someday if interested.

    Thank you.

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