Thanksgiving marks the beginning of one of my favorite times of year. While others fistfight on Black Friday, I pull unread titles off my shelves and pile them next to my easy chair. I may take a break to make some chili or play with the kids, but the rest of year is given to the pleasures of reading.
Though my pile is usually eclectic, I try to fill it with as many classics as I can–those great books that we all know we should read but few actually do.
Why the classics, you ask? Why bother with books old and moldy? Here are five good reasons to read the classics:
- Classics are cheap. Unlike the latest bestseller, paperback classics can be had for a few bucks. If you have a Kindle, the classics are free. A week ago, I bought three dozen books for 20 cents apiece at a library sale, including Milton’s Samson Agonistes, John Donne’s love poems, the essays of Francis Bacon, and a collection of Wendell Berry short stories (a modern classic). Skip the theater. Give some love to those paperbacks you’ve been neglecting for years.
- Classics are entertaining. Being forced to read the classics in school turns a lot of people off to literature. And though James Bond movies start with a lot more adrenalin than a Dostoevsky novel, nothing in Bond can rival the psychological anguish of Brothers Karamazov or the way hope dawns as slowly as the coming of spring in Crime and Punishment.
- Classics will make you think. Great books are great because they deal with the perennial questions that humans struggle to answer: What is justice? How do we know if a thing is beautiful? Can a nation act for its own best interest without regard to neighboring states? What is God? What is the purpose for human existence? Even if you disagree with the author’s answers to these questions, you’ll learn a new way of approaching these issues.
- Classics reveal your blind spots. Taking in only contemporary culture blinds us to our particular follies. As David McCullough puts it, it’s easy to be provincial in time as well as space: “Because you were born into this particular era doesn’t mean it has to be the limit of your experience. Move about in time, go places. Why restrict your circle of acquaintances to only those who occupy the same stage we call the present?” Reading the classics, C. S. Lewis once said, keeps “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds.”
- Classics will make you a better person. The ultimate purpose for reading great books is to be shaped by them–to let them mold our minds, hearts, and wills. But this shaping doesn’t happen automatically. In fact, most people have learned how to read solely for information, for cold, hard fact. Learning to read classics the right way takes practice–which can only be had by reading the classics.
Start with the unread classics you already own. Even if the cover is bland, the title lame, the first chapter uninterested, commit to read it through to the end. If you give a classic a chance to say its piece, you’ll be surprised how much you enjoy it.
If you need a place to get started, check out these two lists I’ve put together:
Take some time to go start your own pile of books, and be sure to include as many classics as you can.