“There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island.”
– Walt Disney
As mentioned in my previous blog post, this is a (kind of) part 2 of why people read classics (or should). I’ve already talked about how I became a classics reader, but I want to ask the more general question (and a very difficult one to answer) of why read the classics at all?
I actually took the name of this blog post from an essay written by the Italian writer Italo Calvino in 1981, which also set out to answer the question ‘Why Read the Classics?’. Calvino spends a lot of that essay putting forward a number of definitions of what a classic actually is. It seems easy to us now, as the publishers have classic series of books, such Oxford World’s Classics, Penguin Classics and The Everyman Library.
I don’t want to spend too long discussing the definition of a classic, but I find it safe to say that any book that is still being printed and read over 100 years after it was published, and offers profound insights into human beings and the world we live in, can be called a classic. We might disagree over the qualities of the books mentioned in the publishing series above, but any book within these series, I accept as a classic.
Of course, then you have the problem of which books that have been published over the last 50-100 years are, or will be, considered a classic. It is very hard to tell. People may argue that John le Carré , J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood all write classics, but that is a debate that probably time will settle.
The final point I would like to add about what is considered a classic, is a book that is studied or taught in our educational institutions. Now of course this will vary from country to country, but if a book is offered up as a book to study many years after it is published, I think this can also be called a classic.
But why should we or anyone want to read them? I mean, look at all the books published today, there’s just so many to get your head into. Why read books that were published sometime so long ago, when I can read one of the many attractive books published last week?
I’ll offer here one of my first answers to the title question, but certainly not the most important, and that is, actually I think the classics are a safe bet for a good read. Whilst the books of today reflect the modern world we live in, and may have addictive plots and twists, do they actually change your life or help you grow as a person? They might do that, but for me, the few modern books I have tried to read or listen to, I just find myself losing interest very fast. It seems too much to read that many modern novels to find something of lasting value. But as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I take reading suggestions very seriously.
I am not denying at all by the way, that there aren’t great books published today at all. There have been many great books I love of history and philosophy that have been written in the last 20 years or so. And I did like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
But for a book to survive and thrive decades after it was written, is a good recommendation by society that there is value in the work.
Now I want to look at 2 contrasting opinions of why we should read the classics from 2 writers; the aforementioned Italo Calvino, but first of all Mortimer Adler. Adler was the author of 2 editions of ‘How to Read a Book’ (the 2nd edition with Charles Van Doren) and has been a popular proponent of the idea that books should be read to help you become a better reader and grow as a person.
He writes in How to Read a Book:
“You must tackle books that are beyond you, or, as we have said, books that are over your head. Only books of that sort will make you stretch your mind. And unless you stretch, you will not learn”
Therefore, the idea is that we should read to help us grow, and that means tackling challenging material to accomplish this. And surely we do all want to grow, right?
However, Italo Calvino writes in ‘Why Read the Classics?’:
“If there is no spark, the exercise is pointless: it is no use reading classics out of a sense of duty or respect, we should only read them for love.”
I agree with both points. Our reading skills and personal growth will progress if we read the classics, yet I don’t believe this can happen if there is no desire to read the book. We can’t force people to read the classics because we think they should. They have to want to read them.
As I previously discussed about how I became a classics reader, I do feel there was a sense of duty at first. I felt that if I wanted to become more in life (whatever that means), I should read these books. But that won’t last very long.
There are many books recommended in ‘How to Read a Book’ that are based on science and mathematics (Euclid and Sir Isaac Newton for example), and I have contemplated reading these books in the past, but I doubt I ever will, and they are not on my reading plan. I’m simply not interested in these subjects, and you could try and tell me all day long how they will help me understand things better, but it won’t make me want to read them.
I accept that this means that no matter how much love I have for a particular book or subject, this might never be shared by other people. I love for instance reading the classic texts of ancient Greece; the epic poems by Homer, the tragedians such as Sophocles and Aeschylus, and also the philosophy of Plato. If no one else shows a spark to read these books, then they won’t read them.
Is it possible to create that spark? I think it is, and it is by discussing our own passion for the subject and topic. Emotion will always win over logic. I can speak at length about why I love reading Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Zola, and generally this does create a curiosity amongst people. I can talk of how pleasurable it is to read The Odyssey whilst staying on one of the Greek islands in the Agean Sea, such as Zakynthos, Kefalonia or Ithaca, it adds a real authenticity to the text that creates another level of enjoyment and wonder to reading the epic.
But again, one has to want to do it themselves. A colleague of mine at work told me he was staying on one of the Greek islands last summer and I suggested the same thing, that he really must read The Odyssey whilst staying in Greece, and he agreed that he should, but he didn’t do it.
And that is why we have to win over people emotionally to read the classics. There is an element I am sure that lingers that the classics are those books that people feel they should read, but don’t actually intend to. Or as people have said to me many times, they don’t feel like they can. Normally, this is after having seen me with a copy of War and Peace. The same people can and do run marathons, but they can’t imagine getting through War and Peace. It must seem like too much of a hard work.
Which makes me think, are people very sensitive about what they focus their mental energy on?
It is only by creating a sense of curiosity and wonder I believe that people will read the classics. Like any form of human activity, they have to believe that they will profit from undertaking the activity. And again, this can only be achieved by appealing to their emotional, rather than logical self.
We therefore begin reading the classics because our curiosity and desire has been sparked, but then those other reasons as suggested by Adler for reading the classics, do kick in. By reading the classics, we do grow intellectually and I believe, morally and ethically. We are reading material that has guided humans in some cases for thousands of years.
We are communicating with Aristotle and Augustine and Chaucer, though we are hundreds of years apart. This is bound to have an effect on us I believe. The classic authors aren’t just providing us material to help us lighten up our day, they are providing wisdom that will help us become a better person and understand the world better.
“The reading of all good books is like conversation with the finest (people) of the past centuries.” – Descartes
By reading the classics, our world also expands – our imagination, our knowledge and our understanding. The greatest teacher in life will always be experience, but life-changing experience does not show up every day, maybe not for years. The great books help broaden our mental horizons when our world is calm.
And when we are growing, when our understanding of the world is greater, and when we are completely absorbed within the pages of a classic, we are happier people. Yes, I say that with confidence. What I know from my experience and from other people who read regularly, is that they would not swap it for another past-time in the world. To be completely invested in a book, and to wish you could just stay continually reading in the moment you are in, is a picture of joy. It is better than the movies and better than television, the author provides the words, the rest is your imagination.
This blog is my love story with classic literature. I can’t persuade people to read the classics but I can express how wonderful it is to be a classics reader in this world. And if that creates a spark in people to read the classics, then I am very happy for that person. I will still be here no matter what. I hope we can talk one day about how much you also love Plato, Shakespeare or Balzac. Or whatever books you love to read. I’d love to hear about them too.
“My alma mater was books, a good library…. I could spend the rest of my life reading”
– Malcolm X