|I really try not to be mean to books on this blog, but you have to admit that this is amusing.|
Two years ago I found a list of 200 classic books that everyone should read, and I’ve been working my way through it. Some of the books have been interesting. I loved Willa Cather’s My Antonia and Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Some of the others have been an absolute slog that I struggled to finish, but I still think that everyone should read classics.
1. To understand human culture.
These books are considered classics for a reason. Reading them will help you see what humanity values and what we think should represent our culture.
2. To be entertained.
The main reason that I read anything is to be entertained. I want to hear a good story. There are a lot of entertaining classics, just like there are a lot of entertaining modern books. Don’t assume that all classics are boring and hard to understand. Keep reading, and you’ll eventually find some that you like.
3. To improve your writing ability.
While you read, you unconsciously absorb the style of the writer. I’ve heard a lot of authors say that if they spend too much time reading books by one author, they start to write like that author. Classics are books that were written by great or innovative authors. Why not absorb the style of the best?
4. To improve your reading ability.
Let’s face it—some of these books are extremely difficult to understand. They expose you to new words, new ideas, and new writing styles. If you don’t understand the book, you can find chapter summaries online. If you stick with the book for long enough, you’ll get used to the author’s style, and the book will get easier to understand. Getting used to difficult writing styles will make you less intimidated by difficult reading material in the future.
5. To improve your vocabulary.
You’ll find words in classic literature that are rarely used in modern time (Lineament? Viand?). Even if you never use these words in day-to-day life, it can’t hurt to know what they mean, especially if you’re planning on taking the GRE or many of the other college-entrance tests.
6. To learn history.
Many authors of history books weren’t alive during the historical period that they’re writing about. It’s different with classics. Many authors of classics were alive during the time period that they wrote about. This makes their books historically accurate and often more detailed than history books.
7. To learn geography.
You can learn a lot about a place by reading about it. I can’t afford to leave the United States, but I can learn about the rest of the world through reading. Reading might not teach me as much as traveling, but it’s better than being totally ignorant. Classics can also teach you about places that no longer exist.
8. To understand that some things stay the same.
It’s interesting to read a book that was written hundreds of years ago and find something familiar. It makes you understand the ancientness of certain parts of the world. Cities such as Athens, Rome, London, and Paris were created long before you were born and will be around long after you’re gone (unless there’s a massive earthquake or zombie apocalypse or something else that destroys cities). You also realize that human emotion hasn’t changed. People have been loving and losing each other for all of human history.
9. To understand that some things change.
Especially culture. Modern parents aren’t in a hurry to marry off their fifteen-year-old daughters, doctors usually don’t make house calls, women have rights, most people have never gone ballroom dancing after an elegant dinner, and falling in love with your first cousin is . . . kind of disturbing.
10. To understand modern literature.
Modern authors are often influenced by authors who came before them. If you read closely, you can sometimes see how one author influenced another. Recognizing and understanding this influence can give you a deeper understanding of the modern book. I once had a professor tell me to read The Bible because a lot of modern society—and modern literature—can trace its ideas back to that book.
11. To think about new ideas.
A book can’t be written in a cultural or intellectual vacuum. Books, even the fictional ones, are reflections of the values, problems, and ideas of the author’s culture or of the culture that the author is writing about. Modern books reflect modern culture, and older books reflect older cultures. There are values, problems, and ideas in these older books that are still worth exploring. We’ve just forgotten about some of them because times have changed.
12. To be part of the crowd.
Millions of people have read these books. Maybe your parents or grandparents read the same books in high school that you read in high school. Classics create connections between people. I’ll always remember having a weirdly-fascinating conversation with a random stranger in my college advisor’s waiting room. The conversation was about the homoerotic undertones in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The random stranger sat next to me, saw me reading the book, and said, “Hey, I’ve read that.”
13. To save money.
Classics are cheap. You can find the complete text of some of them for free on the internet. I don’t have a Kindle, but I’ve heard that you can often get the classics for free. You can also find a ton of cheap classics at library sales and used bookstores.
14. To have a sense of accomplishment.
What was my favorite part of Atlas Shrugged? The part where it was over, and I said, “Holy crap, I just finished a 1,170-page book!”
15. To appear smarter.
By reading classics, you understand humanity, improve your writing and reading ability, increase your vocabulary, learn about history and geography, and think about new ideas. If anyone says, “Have you read this book?” you can say, “Yes.” This makes you appear smarter than the people around you.
I told you that I’d update you about All The Things:
All The Things = 19 books.
I’m currently reading Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.