Why Read the Classics?
September 28, 2010
The classics at their best can appeal to a wide range of people and diverse groups. These books manage to touch certain universal themes that apply throughout different places and time periods. Yet, it's understandable how people can disagree as to what books really deserve to be called "classics". Literary tastes and opinions simply vary. Although, I'm certainly not implying that we give up reading some of the well known classics, or that any selection process for classic books is inherently subjective or flawed. Instead, perhaps potential readers only need to use a little more thought when making their "great" book selections. So, one reason behind reading classic books is to see what "great" books are especially geared and tailored toward you.
The book titles should be ones that have stood the test of time because of their exceptional merit. The selections not only have something meaningful to say, but express it so well that their meanings transcendent the time period and culture in which they were produced. Furthermore, when these classic titles are geared toward a certain type of audience, it’s those selections that seem to be a perfect match for that intended reading group. Pride and Prejudice, for instance, still seems to be a favorite with young women. Although, the strange thing about great novels is that they often appeal to more than just one particular type of reader. So, a rugged adventure story like, Moby Dick, will often spark the interest of both men and women.
Unfortunately, there just aren’t any quick and sure methods of judging the classics. Perhaps, the best ones I've found are in Italo Calvino’s book, Why Read the Classics?. He runs through over a dozen points about what goes into the makeup of such great books. Calvino tends to see the classics as having an emotional effect on readers, as well as having a certain unconscious power of their own. I think the points he makes can help a person better evaluate various books that are deemed as classics. He takes the approach as to why such enduring works are important, and stresses that the works can continue to be read, reread, and still have more to express. He also emphasized that nothing can actually take the place of reading a classic for its own sake, and believes that these books are best appreciated through unenforced reading habits.
Barry Targan, in his article “Where Does Fiction Go” from the Sewanee Review, Spring 2004, takes a slightly different approach toward the classics, but thinks great older fiction can still be invaluable. Targan’s argument is that fiction is something inherent in the human condition, and believes that the best fiction enables culture to spawn new more relevant fiction. Also, he indicates that the works that are currently considered great from authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. are only being seen through a short term literary perspective. Yet, Targan certainly doesn’t devalue classic fiction, rather he sees it as a means to an end. He described great fiction as myths that draw from the past so as to be adapted to the human tribe’s current circumstances. Moreover, he sees the purpose of it all as a way of imaginatively explaining to readers about their own ‘current’ surroundings and difficulties.
Of course, another reason for reading the classics is just for the sheer fun of it. Perhaps, the Three Musketeers put it best, "All for one" and One for all"! . . . . . . . . Well, I must be going now since I'm right in the middle of rereading Don Quixote!!
North Independence Branch