Friday, February 6, 2015

Six Reasons I Read Classics (Even When They're Boring)

On Tuesday I shared some of the classic books I should have read by now. This started me thinking about the reasons I make it a priority to read so-called classic literature, particularly when 1) many of these books are quite boring by today's standards and 2) the canon of traditional classics is heavily slanted toward white males. Why not spend my time only on books that are enjoyable to read?

Here are some of the reasons I came up with for why I read classic books:

1) I understand more references in other media. Books that have traditionally been read by many people over many decades are used as reference points in other stories. TV shows, movies, songs, and other books allude to these well-known stories in order to explain something, develop symbolism, or build their own plots as riffs on traditional stories. I feel like I had a deeper appreciation for The Art of Fielding because of having read Moby-Dick, and while The Lizzie Bennet Diaries can certain stand on its own, it was fun to see the clever ways the creators worked in aspects of the original Pride and Prejudice.

2) I get to be in on jokes/humor that reference classics. This is similar to No. 1, but deserves its own point, because so much humor is dependent on catching references to one thing or another. I remember watching the Jane Eyre skit on Saturday Night Live with Mike and finding it WAY funnier than he did because I had read Jane Eyre. In order to fully appreciate a good parody, you have to be familiar with the source material.

3) I can discuss them with others. We've established that I love discussing books with other people. Outside of book club and school, though, where we're all assigned to read the same book, there are two main categories of books that two random individuals are likely to have both read: contemporary bestsellers and classics. And while contemporary bestsellers may come up in a conversation about books, people are more likely to relate classics to a wide variety of situations. This means not only can I catch and appreciate these references (see No. 1 again), but I can also expand on and enrich the discussion because of having read the books myself.

4) I gain historical perspective without having to read histories. I do like reading histories when they're well done, and certainly novels aren't always going to provide an accurate or all-encompassing view of a place and time period, but there's something to be said for getting inside an individual's head as they experience the day-to-day reality of that time and place. Having a mental story about a specific person and what happens to them can help make that period of history more vivid; for example, the story of Oliver Twist is more interesting and memorable than a list of facts about the Industrial Revolution.

5) I get to have a richer reading experience. I love a good plot-driven book, but I also like a book that offers new insights and meanings each time you read it, and many books are classics for just this reason. More than a decade after finishing high school, I still visit SparkNotes to see what I might have missed while reading a classic book. Sometimes this helps me understand or like a book more, and sometimes it doesn't, but it has helped me learn to better recognize themes and symbolism in my reading in general. This means I can have a greater appreciation for a contemporary work like Speak that makes beautiful use of these literary tools.

6) Some stories are simply fantastic. Books are classics for a reason. Sometimes that reason is that they were the first book ever to use a particular writing style or they have a truly unique premise or they're rich with symbolism that scholars can spend decades analyzing, but this doesn't mean the book is actually enjoyable to read. Many, however, are classics because they're truly engaging and memorable. There are plenty of books I've picked up simply because they're "classics" and ended up greatly enjoying them. Yesterday I finished Flowers for Algernon, which I was reading primarily because it's one of the few books left on my list of classics to read, but I ended up loving it. If you're willing to read a book that has more long, detailed descriptions and less snappy dialogue than most contemporary reads, you may find yourself rewarded by a really excellent story.

I'm sure there are many more good reasons to read classic books. Do you make an effort to read classics, and if so, why?

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