Why We Don’t Read Classics

Mark Twain, author of such great works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, once remarked, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” This is a sentiment felt by many. We all want to say we have read the great works of history such as Plato and Shakespeare, but to actually do it seems rare. There is even a whole industry of books dedicated to giving you short summaries and the main talking points just so you can bluff your way through conversations that deal with the classics. Why is it we don’t read the classics?

  • The Classics are Daunting– Just one page in by a 21st century reader into the works of Shakespeare or Milton will make even the best readers pause and wonder whether or not they just want to read Harry Potter again. That’s how I felt the first time I picked up Aristotle’s Metaphysics and tried to read the man who influenced most of Medieval Times. Yet, even with a commentary, I threw the book down because it was just too much.   Sometimes, classics can be just scary. Ever read Dante’s Inferno? That is one book that will make you want to know for sure there is salvation! Or it could possibly change your life so radically that it saves it, as author Rod Dreher writes in his book, How Dante Can Save Your Life. 
  • The Classics require Work– One of the pitfalls of being a blogger and reading a huge amount of blog articles is that the writing doesn’t require much time and effort to read. Not so with The Classics. During my philosophy segment at St. John’s College, I read some of the most well-known philosophy texts in western culture and a huge portion of them were under a hundred pages. However, jam-packed in those hundred pages were ideas and worldviews that couldn’t be challenged or solved in one sitting. Taking on Hume’s materialistic empiricism in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding or Plato’s understanding of Virtues in Meno requires investigative energies to properly understand and potentially dismantle in light of a christian worldview displayed in The Scriptures. Classics require our full attention, because if we miss one portion, it will often lead us down the wrong train of thought and be twice as hard to recover to the process of comprehending the text once again.
  • The Classics require Time- This is probably the biggest hurdle for the modern American reader. Our obligations and responsibilities pull us in so many different directions requiring so much of us that by the time we get home we just want to watch Netflix and pass out. However we need to be able to better prioritize our lives. As author and blogger Tony Reinke recently wrote, “The time needed to read books is there for all of us. Some are mentally unable to read. Most non-readers simply choose other priorities.” We especially need to make time for the classics, because they are books that you can not simply speed read through. In fact what often happens is the book forces you to put it down and answer for yourself what it is asking. When Plato ask what are virtues or Kierkegaard describes faith, you can’t just simply keep reading, you must ask and prod and figure out what you believe, if what they are saying is true and now how to live in light of it. Classics therefore must be a priority, for they will take your time, but your life will be full.

Despite the challenges of reading the classics, the rewards are so much greater. Once you begin, you know that with preparation, planning and hard work, reading the classics will help you grow and challenge you to become something new.

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Why Read The Classics

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The Great Books of Western Civilization

Homer’s Odyssey. Plato’s Republic. Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Works that have been heralded as some of the finest literary achievements in Western Civilization for hundreds of years. Books that have changed landscapes, thoughts and worldviews; all with the power of words. Yet these books and those books that are grouped with them, called The Classics, are often neglected by readers for various reasons. Whatever the reason is, let me persuade you with why you should read the classics for all that they are worth.

  • Classics are Powerful– I remember the first time I read a classics novel back in the early days of High School. Growing up, I only read comic books and when we read books in school, I skimmed the Sparknotes. This was different though-this was George Orwell’s 1984. It was the first time I couldn’t put a book down because it was so good, and it was a different scary world that can often feel like our own. Since then I’ve read countless classics, because despite the hard work that goes into reading a classic they have a power to suck you in their world like no other type of book. Feeling the intensity of power and insanity of corruption in Macbeth or the longing for home and family found in The Odyssey are feelings that you will find elsewhere, but never to the level you feel in classic works. These works are breathtaking.
  • Classics are Entertaining– You often hear the cliché “The book was so much better than the movie” and even though I often hate the usage of clichés, I can’t help but think how true this is when it comes to classics. Classic Books are so much more fun to read than to watch, and there are many reasons for that, but I think the main reason is because things get lost in translation from book to movie that can’t be replaced or replicated. The stories found in classic literature are just so darn good. Think of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia series; the pure entertainment of reading and experiencing Aslan for the first time brings a sort of sensation to the heart that creates in you a desire to see Aslan for yourself and live in the world of Narnia. I found the same desire when reading the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the pure entertainment of imagining yourself into their world and experiencing the adventures of characters alongside them is much more experiential than the passive forms we partake in modern productions.
  • Classics are Foundational–  You only have a short amount of time on this planet, don’t spend it reading garbage or unoriginal stories. Too often, after reading the classics, I’ll pick up a new book and realize the Author is not doing anything new, in fact Shakespeare, Twain or Huxley did it so much better and in such a way that it should not be copied, because every rendition after is poor. Classic works have laid the foundation for new ideas, new worldviews and new philosophies; Think of how Machiavelli’s The Prince shaped politics or Bacon’s Novum Organum shaped science or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason changed philosophy, each of these books have revolutionized how countless others came after them in performing in their field. These are the works we all should be reading; interacting with the ideas and stories that have shaped and influenced the world.

Pick up a Classic, explore a new world, experience a new idea and read.