Now is the Time to Start Reading the Classics

A scene from The Odyssey

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of the times’ – so begins Charles Dickens classic novel A Tale of Two Cities. In this moment, we are somewhere within that sentence. We are in the best of times the human race has ever known. We are living longer, healthier, safer lives than ever before, and in general, these things get better as time moves forward.

Are we in the worst of times as well? Some of the lucky ones, as we are in the developed world, may think we are. Others who have lived through war and terror would probably disagree.

In my lifetime, this is certainly the strangest time I have known. It feels like we are at war, and yet have the luxury to minimise any effect to ourselves by staying at home. That isn’t easy, but we are not being asked to do much.

I (like many people) have swapped working at the office, to working at home this week, and it has been a blessing and a curse. A blessing, as I get to see my wife and daughter more, and a curse because well, it’s not been easy adjusting to working at home. I probably have to get used to this for at least a few months though.

In the UK, we are rapidly heading towards lockdown. Only yesterday, the pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and gyms were told to close. I had never imagined I would see this. Already I have seen the ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ protests on social media. I guess I am fairly lucky, as I rarely drink or venture into pubs, and I’m going to now suggest something that might seem a radical alternative for those who are not sure what to do…….how about read a book!

Now, before you reject that notion out of hand, let me make a case for why I think this is the right time to start reading the classics. I will then list 5 books which I think are great places to start.

Any activity we undertake, we do because we believe or realise there is a benefit to undertaking it. I’ve heard some people say that reading just seems too boring. You’re doing it wrong.

Reading is an adult way to expand your joy of living. Your world becomes larger as you read widely, and you realise that the classic books are treasures that have been left to us by previous generations. Yes, they are treasures. They help us find life and understand life a little bit better. They are great teachers.

They are not always easy to read, I will grant you that. But then nothing that pays off in the long run is easy is it? I have no doubt that reading great books consistently for months and years will help you become a wiser and more thoughtful human being. You will be so glad you made the effort to read the classics, as your imagination will be taken to new places.

You can picture the scenes of Odysseus as he travels through ancient Greece in The Odyssey, the visions of hell and paradise in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and the life in the city of Dublin at the beginning of the 20th century, as described in the works of James Joyce.

I am not saying you should read the classics. I am saying they make your time on earth incredibly worthwhile. If you are reading a classic and you don’t enjoy it, then fine, pick up another one. You will find a book that makes you glad you began reading the classics. They have survived hundreds, and in some cases thousands of years, because the human race realised they were worth reading.

I am not in any sense a typical academic or classicist. I am an average guy who happens to love reading the classics. I have found great joy and happiness in reading the classics, and I believe they can do the same for others. They are always best read out of love, not study or duty.

Have a look online at the major book retailer sites, and browse through the classics sections. I am sure you will find something that fires your interest. If not, you can read my post on My Reading Plan of 300 Books for inspiration (it’s actually 360 books, but you will see why). It’s a great joy to read the classics, but it is also a pleasure to build a classics library, knowing you are devoted to self enlightenment and education.

Another tip I think adds greatly to reading the classics, is to find a friend or work colleague and agree to read a certain book at the same title. Whether that be Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, reading a book and discussing it, makes it all the more enjoyable.

I won’t argue in this post what actually constitutes a classic, that discussion always rages on, but to make it simple, I recommend anything in the Penguin Classics, Oxford World’s Classics, Everyman Library and Penguin Modern Classics series. The books in these series are thoughtfully chosen; books that are studied and enjoyed over the course of many years.

These are strange times indeed and if you find yourself unsure of how to enjoy the next few months, then I am suggesting starting with 1 of the 5 books below, and see how you get on. These books are titles I think are great entry books into reading classic literature and I hope you get on well with them. Remember, if you are not feeling it, try something else.

The Epic

The Odyssey by Homer – A classic in every sense of the word. The story of Odysseus’s 10 year journey home from the Trojan war is an epic tale of adventure, fantasy, war, family and hope. If some of the classics are not considered enjoyable to read, then you must read The Odyssey, it is perhaps one of the most enjoyable books you can read. I personally recommend the modern translation by Stephen Mitchell, as he presents the story as it was probably originally intended, and it has a great flow and energy to it.

Where to go next? – After The Odyssey, you could go back and read The Iliad by Homer, set during the Trojan war itself. I actually read The Iliad before The Odyssey, which is fine for most people, but The Odyssey in my opinion is the more enjoyable read and a better introduction for the new classic reader.

The Play

Henry IV Part One by William Shakespeare – People often find Shakespeare at school to be uninspiring and boring. There is nothing boring about Henry IV Part One. It is the blockbuster of Shakespeare’s plays, and somehow was never made into a blockbuster. It was the most published and highest selling play during Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is the story of Henry V before he became Henry V, a man far from anything resembling a king in the making. Instead he is a rogue, a thief and a teaser, and yet with war looming, he must become something more than he is, if he is to succeed. This play also includes the legendary comic character Falstaff, one of the most popular character’s in all of Shakespeare’s plays. The story is great, the dialogue is witty and engaging, and this play should leave you with no doubt that Shakespeare was always great to read.

Where to go next? – Like any good blockbuster, there was a sequel – Henry IV Part Two. Not quite as great, but still well worth a read, the cast of characters remains very similar. What follows that is the play where Henry V become Henry V, which is called Henry V.

The Short Story Collection

About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov – Short stories are a great place to begin reading the classics, as you can dip in and out to the stories that you think will interest you, or simply move onto the next one, if one doesn’t do it for you. Chekhov is regarded as one of the greatest short story writers and the stories in this collection represent the whole span of his writing career during his short life. The first few stories represent his earlier less known works, but as you go through the book, the wisdom and joy of reading Chekhov becomes easily apparent. There are many wonderful stories in this collection, including perhaps his best known short story The Lady with the Little Dog.

Where to go next? – There are many collections of short stories by Anton Chekhov, so if you like this collection, you will certainly enjoy more of his work. Tolstoy was a contemporary of Chekhov and one of his short story collections Master and Man and Other Stories is also a great read. If you are up for a challenge, a more difficult but equally brilliant read are the incredible short stories in Dubliners by James Joyce.

The Novel

Germinal by Emile Zola – Regular readers to this blog know that I am a huge fan of Zola’s writing, and though some may disagree that Germinal is a good introduction to classic reading, it is nevertheless one of the greatest novels ever written. Set in northern France in the 1860’s, Germinal is the story of the lives within a mining town, both rich and poor, as tensions rise towards a mining strike. Whilst it is a bit of a slow burner, in the end you will be greatly rewarded for reading this novel. The scenes that Zola creates are of someone at the absolute peak of their genius.

Where to go next? – Germinal is actually 1 of a series of 20 interlinked novels by Zola, known as Les Rougon-Macquart. You could try any of the other novels in this series, particularly L’assommoir, which tells the story of Etienne Lantier’s (the protagonist in Germinal) mother Gervaise Macquart.

The Philosophy

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius – For anyone who likes reading modern personal development / self-help books, this is the place to begin your classics reading. It is much more accessible than other classic philosophy books, written in easy to understand bitesize chunks. Marcus Aurelius was a roman emperor, facing many struggles, and he dealt with these struggles by writing these thoughts of inspiration, essentially for himself. However, they have been helping people overcome and thrive in spite of life’s challenges for nearly 2000 years.

Where to go next? The Discourses by Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius quotes many times from Epictetus in his Meditations, and The Discourses is another life-affirming read, full of wisdom. It is written in a more philosophical style than Meditations, but is nonetheless easy to understand and enriching.

Life is change, and when we are forced to make changes, we need to come out with our own plan for coping in the new circumstances. It is no good dwelling on the loss of freedoms that are currently unavailable. That is a sure way to lead to misery. It is most important of course to be cautious, stay safe and stay healthy, but once you have those habits in place, build your life and imagination by starting a new reading plan of the classic books. I believe you won’t regret it.

If you want more reasons to read the classics, try reading my blog post Why Read the Classics?

If you are looking to start reading something classic, but want further recommendations, please feel free to ask me in the comments section. Myself or I’m sure my regular readers will be delighted to put forward suggestions.

6 thoughts on “Now is the Time to Start Reading the Classics

  1. Have you read The Aeneid? I haven’t read The Odyssey or Iliad, but in children’s versions, and I look forward to reading those one day; but where would you place The Aeneid, if you have read it? What did you think of it. (I love the story, but, again, only know it from a child’s version.)

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    1. Hi Ruth, Yes I have read The Aeneid. It really is an imitation of The Iliad and The Odyssey, but a classic one at that. For me, the first 4 ‘books’ (chapters out of 12) are absolutely magnificent. The escape from Troy and the tale of Dido of Carthage is wonderful story telling. The rest of the book didn’t quite do it for me like The Iliad and The Odyssey did, but having said that, I would like to read a different translation of The Aenied, to see if my opinion would change. Sometimes the translation does make a difference.

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  2. You’ve given such a pleasant and generous introduction to this type of reading, Pete. And with well-chosen timing for those who find themselves running out of other diversions. Here is a list of a few 20th century (modern classics) that have been well-received and offer a varied reading terrain:

    Little, Big by John Crowley-said to be the greatest fantasy ever written by an American and some say the greatest fantasy novel of the 20th century.
    The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles-and his other three novels, collected short stories, autobiography and travel writings. He rings changes on the theme of Americans’ incomprehension of other cultures leading them astray when they encounter those cultures, often fatally.
    The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil-very lengthy, two-volume unfinished novel of ideas. Some rank it with Proust and Joyce.
    Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowery-for those who stay out of bars, Lowery will give you a full-scale, well-soaked, tipsy tour that transpires on the last day of his main character and alter-ego’s life. It takes place in Mexico, is slightly marred by a slow opening, background chapter and ranks #11 on the Random House 20th century list of 100 greatest novels in English (if that is significant). In my opinion this novel gives an experience well worth re-reading. Poetically written too, believe it or not, given the subject matter.
    Possession by A.S. Byatt-Two young scholars fall in love as they research two Victorian poets-story within a story technique is employed here and the book is totally entertaining.
    The Plague by Albert Camus-ordinary people rising at times to heights of heroism during an epidemic of extended duration.
    Blindness by Jose Saramago-nothing soothing to be found here. There is no balm or solace offered but it does place you in the midst of other woe than ours. This, in itself, could serve to be distracting from the world of today for the reader who gets involved with this work.
    Portable Romantic Poets edited by W.H. Auden and Norman Holmes Pearson-includes poets in whom, according to Thomas Wolfe, “the gold and glory of the earth are treasured.” Among others, he is speaking of Wordsworth, Browning, Whitman, Keats and Heine. For the Elizabethan era see Shakespeare, Chaucer, Spencer, Herbert, Herrick and Donne. (This is the only work I’ve listed that features writers from farther in the past.)

    Due to your good efforts, Pete, I hope the soil will begin to be tilled for a fertile outgrowth of more classical enthusiasts. As a seasoned citizen, I can attest to the joy and interest that reading (and listening) to these works has brought to my life over several decades. I also send you a hearty hope that all will go well with you and your family as you work at home, and for you and all of us, may God bless us every one!

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    1. Hi George, thank you for your kind words and extensive recommendations. I am particularly intrigued by The Man Without Qualities and Under The Volcano. They sound like something I would enjoy. Great to see so many books listed though, always gives me plenty to think about and remember.

      Yes, it would be great to see more people getting into the classics. Whether my blog posts contribute I don’t know, but I will always keep promoting the great books and the wealth and joys they bring to life. There’s nothing like having a good chat about a classic book!

      Best wishes to yourself and your family too, I hope you are well. May God bless us and everyone indeed!

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  3. Thank you Pete, for the enthusiasm and cordiality with which you welcome suggestions for further reading. The two titles you singled out from my list are among the very best of those mentioned. In addition, the novels of Jonathan Franzen, Mark Helprin, and Ron Rash are captivating in their own unique ways, as well as many of the short stories of the latter two men.

    Best of blessings to you and your family.

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