You need to actually read the classics

In my many years of experiencing no social interaction outside my house, I often found myself wrapped up in a book – usually young adult fiction or classical pieces. This week I want to talk about why reading the classics for yourself is important. Whether it be Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,” or Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” classical literature expands far beyond what most people think. Pretty much any book can be a classic. Personally I like to look at books from the 90s backwards: books that influenced great movies, classes and fields of thought. 

“The Virgin Suicides” is a fantastic movie directed by Sophia Coppola that was adapted from a book of the same name. “No Country For Old Men” has a similar tale of book adaptation. Have you ever read the book these non-series titles come from? “Bridge to Terabithia”? “It”? “Lord of the Rings”? “The Godfather”? “The Color Purple”? “Dune”? “The Dark Tower Series”? Do it! They made them movies for a reason. The books often tell slightly different stories, too, which is a fun twist and a reason to stick with the book. Books also have a lot more space and time to tell their story, meaning there are usually more details and quirks than a movie can convery.

I don’t know about you but I’ve been receiving recommendations for books in my classes since before I can remember. As it turns out, those recommendations are usually good. When you talk about a text a lot in a class, like Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” (often recommended in Anthropology and History classes), read it. There’s a reason professors and teachers keep bringing it up. It was a huge turning point and changed the landscape of journalism, factory work and class disputes. Yes, you know what people have said about them in textbooks and lectures, but your depth of knowledge becomes much deeper when you read the primary source. It helps things make sense as well as creating more connections with with your own life. Tying these classical giants into your own education makes you a stronger academic weapon. 

“Classical literature” is the literature that authors read in their preppy boarding schools, but it also includes incredible works by people of color and other minorities. Reading is for learning, and fiction is not imaginary but learning through narratives.

James Baldwin is a fantastic writer and a civil rights activist. In his stories he often tells us about his own relationship with sexuality and racism. “Giovanni’s Room” is one of his most critically acclaimed stories that deconstructs love and homosexuality. As a human being in this world you hold an obligation to work to understand the people around you who have been forced to live under social structures of oppression. Just because you didn’t do it doesn’t mean you get to get out of learning about it. Listen to the people who have and are being oppressed so you can help prevent and stop it now. Listen to them to learn what it’s like to not have your privileges. Listen to them to make sure you are aware of the impact of oppression and oppressors.

These older books are also kind of the structure you need to analyze newer literature. They often lay out a framework for genres and tell intricate stories that have been retold for decades. Reading them allows you to better understand how writing works. Learning how to read in a slightly different language is important for becoming a better reader and writer because it gives you another perspective to add to your linguistic toolbox. Older texts’ language often requires a bit more thinking than books written in today’s colloquial language. That is good! Get out of your comfort zone. It makes you a more well-rounded individual. 

I suppose in the end the most important thing is to read, read, read. You can look up lists of classical books that have lots of old white guys and maybe one or two old white women. Things are becoming more multivocal and are changing to contain more authors, but a lot of popular lists are kind of harbingers of stodgy uptight writing. That’s fine sometimes, but it also turns a lot of people off of classical literature. You can try to keep your cultural bias in mind and look for authors you wouldn’t normally read or haven’t read or you can talk to people like professors or librarians. Do it. I also listed some fun ones throughout this piece, so I guess you can look back here for recommendations, too.

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