“Why don’t you read something fun for a change?“
I actually get this question quite a lot. I normally brush the question off like a bug on my shoulder, my response generally being “I don’t know what you mean by fun“, but I have started to think lately about whether I am having ‘fun’ while reading the classics? Am I wasting my precious reading time in life on books that aren’t ‘fun’?
The only way to begin to question whether the classics are fun to read, is to be clear of course why you read them in the first place. Even well-read people I know, sometimes think I am putting myself through some kind of self-imposed torture by reading books such as Plato, Epictetus or Homer. “We had to read those books at university, why on earth would you voluntarily choose to read them?” – is the usual sentiment that goes with it.
I’ve stated somewhere on this blog before that there is a post to be written about the impact the education system has on our perception of the classics, but that is still to be written. It will come soon. But nevertheless, I do understand that for a lot of people, the books they were made to read in school (and unfortunately, those are ones we would call classics), do not lead to a lasting love of those particular books. Learning Shakespeare at school I do not think lends itself to a lifelong love of Shakespeare for the majority of people.
But then, here we are. Many of us later in life do fall in love with reading the classics, and see them as nothing else but a way to grow our minds, our understanding, and our fascination with the world. And yes, enjoy many books along the way! It’s a shame to me that so many people look at the kind of books I read and say “oh, that’s too high brow for me“. I still don’t really understand what ‘high brow’ means either, but I think it means a book I perceive will be way above my head.
Even book lovers I’ve seen on Twitter, often don’t get why people would read the ‘boring’ classics. They want books that endlessly entertain them, which allows a lot of them as I have seen to read up to 15 books a month. Now look, I know I am an envious slow reader, but come on, you can’t be reading a book to any great depth if you can squeeze 14 others in, during the same month! Or maybe those books don’t have any depth?
I treat my relationship with a book very seriously. At the current time in my life, I do not have much time during the waking hours to read, and the reading time I do have is very precious to me. In general (because of course I do give up on some), I do give a book a lot of time and attention, and expect to get much greater treasure than entertainment out of any book I am reading. I expect my imagination to be taken for an incredible journey, to be able to picture scenes and landscapes I could not have thought up myself, I expect to learn something, and I expect my world to have become expanded as a result of reading that book.
So, is it fun to read the classics? No, not always. But then is ‘fun’ the only reason to read a book? Jim Rohn used to say “Don’t just read the easy stuff, you won’t grow” and I agree completely with that. Reading the classics is a self-growth activity. That is of course if you want to grow, and I am not saying you have to. If someone is perfectly happy only reading the latest thrillers in the bestseller list, then I am of course not one to insist they have to read the classics.
I should point out that even the term ‘classics’ is probably a too vague and too broad a category. Anything that is studied and still in print over 100 years since its first publication, is generally considered a true classic, but you would never categorise together Lucretius with Eliot, and Herodutus with Moliére. There are classic books that are very entertaining, and some which are not so entertaining, but most classics offer value beyond entertainment. They have many layers of understanding to them.
So for instance, no, it isn’t really ‘fun’ to read Plato or Epictetus, but do I love those books nonetheless, yes! They offer so much wisdom, guidance and imagination, and my world is better for knowing those books. It can be very fun and enlightening though, to read some of the classic novelists of the 19th century, such as Dickens, Austen, Trollope and Twain. People might have different opinions about that though of course.
I personally love reading the books of Émile Zola. I wouldn’t say I read them for entertainment, but it is definitely part of the package. But love and connection is the key to reading any book. As Italo Calvino once wrote ‘You should never read the classics out of a sense of duty, only for love‘. You can read a classic to improve your reading skill and your level of understanding, but if there is no connection with the material at all, then I don’t give it much chance.
I do sometimes get drawn to the idea of reading a modern novel, and do intend to at some point in the future, but those thoughts normally pass, and I always come back to wanting to read a classic. As I said earlier, my reading time is very precious to me, and I just find in the classics, that the time invested in them will provide rewards and treasures beyond a thrilling page turner.
So no, the classics are not always fun to read, but then if a book has to be fun for you to go near it, then you won’t wander to the classics anyway. Nevertheless, for me, I love the ride of being a classics reader. They touch my heart, my soul and my love for the world, and I am truly grateful that we live in a world where there are so many classic books to be read and enjoyed. If only there was more time.
How about you? Does a book always have to be fun to be read? Is it possible to love a book, without it being fun? I’d love to hear your thoughts!