Is it Fun to Read the Classics?

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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!

6 thoughts on “Is it Fun to Read the Classics?

  1. When I was tutoring English at a local college, my boss would let me read between students. I had a big leather-bound collection of novels by Charles Dickens and was trying to read Oliver Twist for about a month. I could hardly manage it because I’d be interrupted constantly by passersby who wanted to know what I was reading. When I told them “Oliver Twist” they’d be stunned and almost appalled: “Why in the world are you reading THAT?” I didn’t even know what to say. They all knew I was the English tutor & an English major. That was like asking the star pitcher in baseball team why he practiced pitching. But then they’d ask me what it was about, whether or not it was difficult, why I liked it, if it had been assigned — etc. They seemed puzzled but curious. (By the way, I was too young a reader then to appreciate Oliver Twist. 🙂 I ended up not liking it a-tall. I’d likely find far more to appreciate on a reread. I love A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, and David Copperfield, though, the first of which I find QUITE FUN.)

    I think people ask why I’m reading such and such because they want to know more about what motivates me, not because they are as incredulous as they sound. They just genuinely don’t understand. I view it as a conversation starter, & often ask why they don’t read Dickens. It’s a way in with people, sometimes. 🙂

    There’s no universal “fun” that fits all people. Some people love knitting; I find it monotonous. Some love mazes, while mazes make me impatient. People have different personalities. I think the people who are so stunned about why I might read something like Oliver Twist are sincerely curious as to how such an activity could possibly interest me. They’d be reading Oliver Twist by obligation and can no more understand my fascination with it than I understand someone’s inclination to do a crossword puzzle.

    I tend to explain that reading feels like a conversation to me. With the past. I like a deep conversation and can often find one in an old book, ergo…

    I don’t actually find it fun most of the time. I find it fairly grueling to hole up alone with a book. I find spontaneous conversation and laughing with friends fun — & walking old American Civil War sites with people who share my interest, touring old houses, watching a rich historical film, hanging out and cooking and chatting together. I find reading old books nourishing to my soul but not generally fun UNLESS I’m doing it socially (taking turns reading aloud, which transforms a dull old tome into a group activity that’s MOST FUN.)

    There’s room for both fun and nourishment in life. I feel more whole, alive, and aware when I am in touch with the observations of humanity. I feel that I have more to contribute to the present when I keep a finger on the writings of the past. It is a challenge for me to read old books, because I’d often rather do something lighter, but it’s a habit for me that I feel deepens me for life, so I proceed. I feel myself emptying when I read only “shallow” things, and I feel myself growing too serious when I forget to also do the things that make me laugh.

    ‘Tis about balance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your detailed thoughts Jillian. There are so many great comments in there; “puzzled but curious” – I completely understand this sentiment. People do seem to be curious about the classic book you have chosen to read. I know I mention Zola too much on this blog, but I often find that people are very interested and curious when I explain the premise and background of his Les Rougon-Macquart cycle of novels, and how the novels follow the lives of the legitimate and illegitimate members of the families, but I doubt this translates into someone going out there to read one of his books. That is what I (partly) want to attempt with this blog, to encourage people to go and read the classics, not for my sake, there isn’t much in it for me really, but I want people to understand how much wonder and joy they add to life. For my part, I just get to talk about the classics, which is the main point of this blog.

      But you’re right, everyone is different, and maybe I or we can influence people to read greater books, but we can’t force them to like them. I know with a lot of my family, they just wouldn’t get very far before giving up. I think it is a symptom of modern living that people need to find stimulation and the reward very fast for reading a book (or any other activity), and the classics aren’t really about that. The rewards are way upstream (though of course some novels do get you from the start). And like you, I feel empty and wasted if there is no depth or meaning to a particular book I’m reading, I have to feel the time I spent with the book was worth it. I can watch TV if I want to turn my mind off, but a book is a much greater relationship and commitment.

      I’m not too familiar with the American Civil War being the other side of the Atlantic, but I certainly share you love for history. I was in Baltimore about 12 years ago, and there is a civil war site there down by the dock area (if I am correct?) where a major or minor skirmish took place, which I felt incredibly in awe to be around. I essentially live on an English Civil War battlefield, so am always fascinated by trying to be able to picture a scene where I’m standing from a few hundred years ago. I think it’s great you walk some of the old civil war sites, history is a very inspiring and fulfilling activity, alongside a love for classic books.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I think history is why I so love old books. They’re basically primary documents. You get to hear the voice & perspective of the past & what actual humans made of their era & its events & culture. I find that FAR more enriching than secondary history, though I read that too. Classics are the personality of the past, & its often wise, often jaded perspective. They offer a why to our history.

    “A book is a much greater relationship and commitment…” Yes, exactly. 🙂

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  3. I’ve been to Baltimore too, Pete, several times many years back, but did nothing more culturally significant than to watch major league baseball with my favorite slugger participating on the field. (He only went 2-for-19 over a six-year period but it was a thrill for me and a couple of friends just to be there.)

    Clifton Fadiman calls classics “original communications” and says their greatness is sometimes felt years after you’ve read them. Most of them don’t start off like gangbusters and they have to take time to build. The principle of deferred gratification comes into play for the reader. Eventually the cumulative payoff that has been steadily building will hopefully come through to reward you with its impact. With a few authors who are symphonic rather than narrative, you just immerse yourself in the experience they give you. Guys like Joyce and Proust, you have to begin with a desire to climb those mountains. They are there to be explored, but I can understand most readers not being willing to take the trouble to take the trouble. I was enticed into trying them because of the great introductions that I read by Fadiman, John Cowper Powys and Edmund Wilson, among others. Aside from the writings of these men I don’t expect I would have taken any interest in J and P.

    Speaking of being introduced to books in school (the most likely place), I think of what one of my favorite authors by the name of Thomas Wolfe said about that through one of his characters in You Can’t Go Home Again. “Schools are all right really, but the thing they do is different from the thing that Keats and Whitman and Mark Twain do. The people that you find in schools are academic people and these other kind of people-the poets, are not academic people, they are people who discover things for themselves.” I greatly condensed this quote. And yet Wolfe did years of post-graduate work at Harvard and taught English for several years at Columbia so obviously a lot of schooling was in store for him. If this is contradictory in him, then maybe we could say he is like Walt Whitman and contained multitudes.

    I meant to include some quotes by Oates, Joyce Carol, and by Sidney Harris, but will leave them out in the interest of brevity. And also because the tone they used in the quotes I wanted to give was pretty acerbic toward non-readers, and you don’t usually win people’s hearts that way.

    To close, I have a paraphrase from Harold Bloom, quite an academic himself, whose own life has closed. He said that he had remained solitary even after a life of teaching, rereading and writing. Also he noted that many of the books you read are able to confer delight and give even the most solitary reader a sense of companionship.

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    1. Hi George, I went to a Major League Baseball game while I was there as well, the Baltimore Orioles (the ‘O’s’) isn’t it? I can’t remember who they were against, but it was great fun.

      I completely agree with you sentiments, classics are like mountains and they take time to build, and very often appreciate. I do have Proust on my shel but I think I have said to you before, I realised after I starting reading In Search of Lost Time once that I would have to have lots of free time and mental focus to really get the best out of it. Or am I over thinking it? Proust is the author I have never read who I am most keen to read.

      I loved your thoughts as well regarding being introduced to books at school. It is very hard to look back at our school days and the books we were introduced too, because we were different people back then. I wish I had the knack for Shakespeare and Steinbeck back then (though I did always appreciate Of Mice and Men), but I just can’t place myself back in my thinking back then. I certainly never felt like an academic either, I did end up with an average degree (in Media and History) but I wasn’t a great student. But I wish I did appreciate it more, because the idea of spending the purpose of one’s whole day on learning, sounds like heaven to me now. Everything in its right time I guess though.

      It was a very nice closing paragraph as well, books really do offer a sense of companionship, which sounds quite lonely and sad at the same time, but I completely understand it. They are relationships I cherish.

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  4. It’s neat to know that you saw an Oriole ballgame, Pete. As well as also touring a battlefield. Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization in eleven stout volumes offers a large dose of history for those inclined to pursuing such an interest. I listened to the entire set (about one volume or so a year) back in the ’90s and can promise you I remember very little from it, only a residue of what I heard has lingered in my memory, if that. Also, let me divulge that I’ve set foot on your side of the pond with great pleasure. The British Museum was fascinating. And we got to cross a street called Abbey Road.

    I didn’t realise at first that I had unconsciously taken the figure of the mountain from the Fadiman introduction to Ulysses by James Joyce in his Lifetime Reading Plan. Clifton Fadiman said that this book was like a mountain that at first seemed unscaleable, but that from the top you were granted a view of human life of incomparable richness. This outlook appealed to me. I wanted to try to conquer that peak, so to speak. When you mentioned your continuing thoughts of interest in Proust, it made me recall a local newspaper article in the Sunday book section, from bygone years in which some professor was saying in an interview that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to reread him due to the enormous demands on time that he makes. (There truly is a double factor at work here of not only the great length of this author, but that he also requires to be read slowly.)

    Like you, Pete, I am now more enamored of learning than I was in the days when I was taking a four-year course in Business Administration. I revel in the way you go into the different good things you get from the classic books. When it comes to encouraging the interest of others in these books you have reminded me of what Fadiman (again) said in an essay of his on The Literary Life. Namely, that there is “the secret thrill of feeling that you are actually, even if only in the slightest degree, touching another mind, changing it, possibly even helping it.”

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