Confession time: I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice. I’ve also never read Jane Eyre. Or 1984. Or even A Tale of Two Cities. But I have read The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Great Expectations. So I’m not entirely uncouth. (Just mostly.)
When classic books are terrible
Some classic books are just terrible. Take Moby Dick, for example. It is one of the few books I can say I genuinely hate. I know that Melville is supposed to be the greatest novelist that America has produced, but I really didn’t find it to be that engaging a read. I first read it in high school as part of an independent study project, and nearly every time I picked it up, I fell asleep.
A few years later, I did give it another shot. I didn’t want to assume that I didn’t like it simply because I had a bad experience with it in high school. The experience reading it as an adult was not unlike pushing a boulder up a steep hill. In a snowstorm. Without pants.
Other books have been like that for me, as well: The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis made me want to die inside, so I quit reading it (not because it was convicting, but because it was so dreadfully dull). I never really got the big deal about Romeo and Juliet when we studied it in school (maybe that means I should try again?). Dracula by Bram Stoker was just kind of there. As a teen, I think I tried to like it largely to impress girls (didn’t work).
When classic books are great
But some classics are totally worth reading: Great Expectations remains a favorite of mine among Dickens’ works (at least those I’ve read). The Pilgrim’s Progress makes my soul sing every time I read it.1 The Time Machine, A Wrinkle in Time, Mere Christianity and dozens more besides… These are books that I want to share with my kids. Books I hope everyone enjoys as much as I do, and question the sanity of those who don’t. (Kidding. Kind of.)
Classic books: a worthwhile endeavor
I always get a little sad when people seem to live solely in the present, at least in terms of literature. Not that modern books aren’t good, of course; but by avoiding the classics, you might miss out on something amazing—even if it’s your amazement at how much you can irrationally hate one book (like me and Melville’s opus). What reading classic books does is open you up to the wider world around you. Through them, you discover the origins of some of those weird words and phrases that have slipped into the modern lexicon, the ones everyone understands but no one seems to know where they came from (and just how much we owe to Shakespeare). But you also gain a better sense of the trajectory of western thought—how we’ve progressed (or regressed depending on your point of view) in our understanding of the world, and all that is. We understand where we’ve come from, what we’ve left behind, and perhaps even a bit of what we need to recover.
To me, that makes them worth reading. What about you?