Aside from a handful of reading assignments in high school and a few beloved thick classics which slipped through, I turned my back to literature and the classics for the sake of science, engineering, and a career in technology.
“How on earth would English Literature or any other classic help me toward excelling in grad school or getting the next promotion?”, I thought, tossing aside even the remote possibility of engaging in such an activity. Quite rightly, it probably would not have helped me. Jane Austen or Emily Brontë would have never been instrumental in writing my thesis on “Effects of pulse shape on performance of Direct Sequence Spread Spectrum Multiple Access communication systems“! Or in getting that next promotion, for that matter.
Be it singled-minded ambition, naïveté or ignorance of youth, in hindsight it is best I set aside the novelty of that experience for another time and place.
When my reading mania started a few years ago, I traded insane hours of unnecessary work for a few hours of reading pleasure and low and behold, an insatiable desire was born. From business books to thrillers, from best sellers to personal memoirs, from fables to self-improvement works, I have been on an expedition of the finest kind and yet have only recently arrived at the sanctuary of it all: Classical literature.
Don’t get me wrong. I devoured every word of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Mario Puzzo’s The Godfather, Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, and Michael Crichton’s thrillers amongst dozens upon dozens of other delicious reads.
But when it comes to a true classic, the conversation changes. All scales of standard measure are rendered irrelevant. We are no longer just talking about a book, a work of fiction, a plot or a promising movie from Hollywood. We know we are in the presence of something timeless, eternal, and special.
Definition of literary classic (which may be up for debate!) : An original work that has continuously and consistently stood the test of time, withstood the winds of change (cultural, political and historical in nature) and endures still for all generations as a universally recognized jewel to be read and treasured.
Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Leo Tolstoy, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe. And this is just to name a few.
Equipped with a pair of untrained eyes and a background unsuitable for understanding the arts, I am shamefully ignorant of the delicate layers of meaning behind all the literary prose. Yet I have been undeterred and unstoppable. I read each classic cover to cover, word for word, with the exception of Wuthering Heights and most of Tolstoy’s passages, which I read twice. Even as I struggle with the dreadful beginnings, the incredible depth of vocabulary, the unrecognizable references to history and geography, I am awestruck and stunned to the core with the pure genius behind the power of these silent words.
I nurse a healthy appetite for the contemporary reads but temper a yearning lust for the classics.
And where are these classics today besides old bookshelves of the world? Outside the circles of the literary minds, college lit courses or a formal book club, do we talk about them? At work, at cocktail parties, on the phone, in email, or in daily routines with friends or strangers, do we discuss them? Do we bring the characters to life, learn from them, apply their lessons, imagine their struggles, or imitate their beautiful dialogue?
It is madness to allow our intellectual worldly heritage to be left to oblivion. Let us pay tribute, respect and gratitude by celebrating the works of timeless literature inherited by us. It asks nothing of us, only to be read and remembered. A world of toiling and labor from the tireless hands of the mastermind authors to our undeserving hands. Seize the golden opportunity to educate and enlighten your mind. Read timeless classics.
And in case you are as stubborn as yours truly, let me set aesthetics and intangible ideals aside for a moment and convince you that reading classics will change your life and improve upon your mind. I claim that just as classical music opens up the synapses to help you with mental clarity and creativity, whatever your disposition in life, you shall reap similar rewards from reading a classic once in a while.
Consider, if you will, a few of these practical benefits:
Creative Thinking: The authenticity of each author, the blueprint of each style and prose, and the mesmerizing characters and their plots will awaken a sleeping mind. With an active mind buzzing from such original works, you will create a universe of possibilities for your mind to think through ideas, plans, and problems.
Originality of Ideas: From the breadth of ideas articulated and expressed ever so precisely in each classic, you will give birth to your own original ideas. The behavior is contagious. The inspiration remarkable. And the possibilities abundant.
Raging Inspiration: The classical authors often went against the tide. Women writing under a pen name because they felt compelled to express themselves. Writers who chose a life of writing, dying penniless and poor but believing in their work. The audacity to write, to create a lasting piece of work, to leave something behind. If that does not inspire you …
Precision of Expression: There is such articulation of each feeling, thought, and idea. Such precision and attention in the absence of vulgarity and obscenity. There is the ordinary and common way to express ideas and there is the refined and unarguably better way. Classics can show you the latter.
Stories to Prove a Point: We learn in college and at work to use stories to prove a concept. There is no better place to learn an abundance of thousand year old stories than from the classics. Using the timeless characters as analogies to get your point across can be effective, impressive and memorable.
Knowledge of History: Reading pure history books takes amazing patience. Putting history in the context of fiction can make it memorable for longer periods of time. Encapsulating it in the beauty of literary prose of a classic makes it simply impossible to forget!
Enhanced Vocabulary: The sophistication and purity of the writing demands our attention. The prolific vocabulary is remarkable in these classics, and you cannot help but pick up new words, new phrases, and perhaps use them in your speech or writing. Words which have graced these pages but have disappeared from our language, to be sadly replaced by commonplace chatter, slang, or nothing (in which case a string of words is used to describe a situation for which we used to have perfect vocabulary to choose from!)
Never another Grammar Mistake: The frustration of today’s common grammar mistakes will cause me to act out of character in public one of these days. It continues to appall me. It is important to speak and write well. Even if errors in grammar have become a common everyday occurrence, they are still wrong. Dead wrong and poor usage of language. Classics can teach us to avoid them like the plague.
Fighting Adversity – Most of the classics were written at a time when life was quite hard and earning a comfortable living with a fraction of today’s luxuries was reserved for a lucky few. The characters in most of these works of fiction struggle and continuously fight adversity. They share with us their lessons, their hardships, their frustrations and often their triumphs. Even if things happened many decades or centuries ago, the human spirit fights the same battles in a different battleground today – if not in our environment, then we bring it onto ourselves with stress, challenges and personal pursuits. We can learn perspective and perseverance.
“When you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.” ~Clifton Fadiman
What classics in literature have left you with an indelible impression? Why? Which ones did you love? Which ones did you hardly stand – and if so, did you ever go back to read them again? And is there a way we can make reading classics a more standard pastime in our lives? Share your thoughts!
This post was influenced by a dear friend, Rebekah Smith, whose love and adoration of the classics is beyond impressive and whose understanding of them inspires me to look deeper into each book and each author. I draw inspiration from her insightful perspective and I tease her because her modesty is as abundant as her vast literary knowledge. Thank you, Rebekah, for sharing your passion with me.