Lately, I’ve interacted with multiple individuals who have told me the same, unsettling truth.
“I never really read classical literature.”
At first, I thought my initial shock was only because I can devour books whole and have read obsessively since I was three or four years old (a Mom-verified fact). Not everyone had the same, nerdy homeschool-setting exposure to the sheer volume of classical literature that I did, after all.
But then I came to realize that not only did these individuals never read classical literature in their early years, but that this trend continued throughout their time in high school and college. The avoidance of these works was a choice. If it wasn’t required for class, these people found no reason to read the classics. The most Shakespeare any of them have read is Romeo and Juliet, and at the mere mention of the play, they all cringe.
As a writer, this was awful enough. Upon thinking it over, however, I realized my reaction didn’t come from my writer side at all. When my tongue blurted out the first thing that came to mind, “What do you mean, you’ve never read that?” it drew from my most basic appreciation for literature and nothing else.
It took me a while to figure out why this bothered me so much. Sure, not everyone loves to read. Some people are even bad at reading, and will tell you straight-up that they find it grueling. I can understand it in the same manner that I find mathematics grueling. Everyone is different.
But here’s the thing: even though I’m terrible at math, I took courses up through pre-calculus. My education in math, torturous as it was, taught me the basics of arithmetic and numbers required for a person to function in normal society. I can reduce fractions for recipes and calculate time/travel equations well enough not to be late. For my role in society, this is all I need.
Now another thing: people rarely hold mathematics and literature in the same regard. One does not require the knowledge that Victor Frankenstein and the Creature, toward the end of "Frankenstein", both deliver monologues which unveil the depths of their character development. Right? It doesn’t affect normal life in any way.
Except it does.Literature is a unique medium which communicates the intricacies of human nature in a way no other thing can. Words hold incredible power, and the written word even more so. Books epitomize human creativity because not only do they capture the message of the writer, but they also harness the imaginative capabilities of the reader.
For instance, when Victor and the Creature give their last words, Mary Shelley lays bare Victor’s realization of his self-centered follies, and the Creature’s remorse for his once-presumed-righteous actions. Not only do the readers get to enjoy a thrilling tale of adventure, murder and revenge, but they simultaneously experience the moral extremes Shelley presents—allowing them to weigh the meaning of humanity with its own shortcomings. In
"In life and art both… we are always trying to catch in our net of successive moments something that is not successive…. But I think it is something done—or very nearly done—in stories. I believe the effort to be well worth making." - C.S. Lewis
This is not something you can learn from an algebra equation. It is the examination of a major quality of the human race. While people can find these themes in real life, the involvement of reading them in literature is unequivocal. Classical novels like "Frankenstein" may heighten readers’ understanding of life. They can explain unfamiliar emotions and situations. They can create empathy and move people to action over a just cause. Literature’s influence on minds and cultures has shaped countless movements and brought new consciousness to human existence.
In other words: books are not to be sneezed at.
Of course, classical novels are not the only literature that can accomplish these things. But contrast the popular fiction of today with the early forms of the novel and literature in general, and you’ll see a stark difference. Historical study is essential to understanding the world, and reading the classics is just as essential to understanding literature.
The “flash fiction” of today—as my Literature professor calls it—tends to gloss over the details classic novels study in-depth. Modern novels are more tailored toward a reader with a short attention span. The discipline of reading a piece of classical literature can improve not only your own writing (if you’re a writer), but your grasp on the fundamentals of human nature and the exploration of life’s major events.
Besides, once you get into it, the classics are just plain good stories. Lose yourself in the romantic tension of Austen and Bronte novels. Ride the high seas with Melville or Forester. Struggle against injustice with Shelley. And all the while, enjoy an exploration of the beauty and depth of the human condition.Here’s your challenge for the New Year: read more classical literature.