Why Read the Classics?
Some wit once said,
“Classics are those which everyone wants to have read but nobody wants to read.”
Regardless of whether or not this is true, it does beg the question, “Why are classics…well…classic?”
Classics are those works of art that have staying power. In other words, people continually recognize that these works are worth considering well after their time. For some reason, people keep returning to figure out what past generations saw.
What is it that keeps people, for hundreds or thousands of years, returning to the same pages, painting, or sounds? What is it that makes these works timeless?
Timelessness occurs when a work speaks about the grand truths of reality. These works tell us something about being human, about God, or both. Whether Christian, pagan, or something else, by the grace of God, these creators were about to capture something deeply true about the world.
Consider the Epic of Gilgamesh. While some people might be familiar with this work as the “Babylonian Flood Narrative,” it is also an epic tale about a boastful king that wrestles with mortality and humility.
Unlike much of the vapid, fleeting content we encounter today, the classics don’t just reveal insight into something important now, they reveal something that will always be true or at least always worth considering. In other words, while there are many important (and not so important) books being written now, the classics will be important for all of human history. They force each generation to deeply reflect on perennial questions.
How to Start
The reason most people don’t start reading the classics is that it is difficult to do so. I don’t know anyone who has immediately read something like the Odyssey and thought, “Psh, this is a breeze.” The classics often use language that is old, not originally in English, or difficult and technical. There’s often a cultural divide between us and the authors. They can be long and not written in an easy-to-read format.
So what do we do? How does one start reading the classics?
My advice is to start reading Mere Christianity by CS Lewis. Mere Christianity is easy enough to understand and is like dipping your little toe in the water. It’s slightly more challenging than most current reads but only barely. Further, Lewis was steeped in the classics, so his writings hint at them all the time.
After that, skip to Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine is a hugely important Church father and there are some very readable translations of this work. From there, find something that interests you!
Is it fantasy?
Maybe you try Treasure Island or Alice in Wonderland.
Looking for Romance
Emma by Austen is a good start
Looking for something really deep?
Read Plato or Aristotle!
It’s not cheating to use a reading guide or helps. Maybe there’s even a classics book club near you.
At first, some of these works may seem boring to you. I get that. Power through, even if you only read one book over the course of the year. Try to really reflect on what you’re learning. While the beginning is hard, I haven’t had a single student that didn’t eventually find this process deeply fruitful.
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