I’m a historian, not a literary scholar, but for most of my time studying history, I read at least one novel per class. So I know just how great classic literature can be. Personal enjoyment is great, but how about five other reasons to choose a classic book to read this summer?
1. You can get a great sense of the culture at the time.
This is part of what I loved about reading Dickens. I learned so much about the cultural expectations for noble women in France and England in the late 18th century when I read A Tale of Two Cities.
2. You see the references to them in all kinds of modern media.
The people who write books now, often studied literature in school. Even if they didn’t, writers are always avid readers. Screenwriters, movie directors, television showrunners, they’re all often avid readers. So you’ll find Gatsby references wrapped in Odyssey parallels, tied up with a bow first tied by Dostoevsky. When you’ve read the original source material, you find a lot of parallels, and you can really understand current media.
3. Increase your analytical skills.
Really, all reading will do this. But because when we read classic literature we’re usually reading the best of the era, we’re getting really good books. If you were to just select what was popular, you’d probably find a lot of badly written books. Instead, you’re getting a choice selection of good books, with complex storylines, often written to be published in separate sections, which have been influencing culture for decades, centuries, or in some cases, millennia. By reading complex books, and analyzing them, you can develop your analytical and critical thinking skills.
4. Cultures change, people don’t.
When you read classic literature, you discover something really incredible. While the cultures and societies change, underneath that people stay the same. So many girls grow up seeing themselves reflected in Jane Eyre, or Elizabeth Bennet, or one of the March sisters. People are ultimately the same no matter if they’re from 21st century America, 18th century Peru, or Ancient Greece. The first joke written down in English was a penis joke, written by an English monk. Medieval monks loved writing down dirty jokes. Yes, there are a lot of differences between the cultures that Odysseus and Telemachus encounter, and the ones that you and I will encounter, but when you read their stories you find the same types of people you’ll meet in your own life.
The cultures in these books are so wildly different from our own, that by living in them just temporarily, we see a totally different world. By getting to live in someone else’s head for the duration of the book – in some cases multiple people’s heads – you see our own world in a different way. When you read the Great Gatsby, you can look at the world through Nick Carraway’s eyes, as someone who’s learned the lessons of Gatsby’s obsessive love. While you can get into lots of different types of heads in modern literature, the variation in culture really helps you learn to imagine others complexly.
My favorite pieces of classic literature are The Great Gatsby, A Tale of Two Cities, and Chretien De Troye’s Arthurian Romances. You can find a lot of classic literature for free in ebook format, widely in libraries, or fairly cheaply in print format through Amazon or used book stores. This is your casual reminder that I am a sometimes booktuber. What’s your favorite classic novel or short story?