Why Read Classic Literature?
“Literature in its most comprehensive sense is the autobiography of humanity.” Bernard Berenson
“This is old stuff — how can it be relevant to my life?” I’ve heard this objection from both students and adults, as I’ve spoken through the years on the importance of reading classic literature. I’ve been thinking more about literature and literacy and the place of great books in life as I’ve worked on refining my high school literature series. I’m more deeply than ever convinced of literature’s importance in every area of life.
Literature is the cornerstone of literacy
With a strong foundation in literature, it becomes possible to put life into words. We read of the experiences of others, and they become our own; we are able to place our own experiences in perspective; we can grasp the significance, beauty, or tragedy of an event in a way that is impossible for a person who lacks fundamental literacy. We learn by example how to clearly express feelings, describe experiences, and empathize with others. Classic literature not only teaches us how to communicate, it also gives us a common basis for understanding one another.
Literature connects across the ages
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in his 1970 Nobel lecture, said,
“The sole substitute for an experience which we have not ourselves lived through is art [and] literature . . . From man to man, as he completes his brief spell on Earth, art transfers the whole weight of an unfamiliar, lifelong experience with all its burdens, its colours, its sap of life; it recreates in the flesh an unknown experience and allows us to possess it as our own.”
“. . . literature conveys irrefutable condensed experience . . . from generation to generation. Thus it becomes the living memory of the nation. Thus it preserves and kindles within itself the flame of her spent history, in a form which is safe from deformation and slander. In this way literature, together with language, protects the soul of the nation”
“World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another so that we might cease to be split and dazzled, that the different scales of values might be made to agree, and one nation learn correctly and concisely the true history of another with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes.”
Solzhenitsyn asserts that literature serves an irreplaceable transmitter of experience from person to person, generation to generation, and nation to nation. Is this relevant? It is important?
I believe that it is. The transmission of experience is vitally important for many reasons. Think about it . . .
Literature expands our world
Good literature broadens our world. Without literature, we live alone in the cage of our own experiences. We are limited by the confines of time and space — until we open the door to the experiences of others through reading great literature.
- We learn to empathize by experiencing the feelings of others.
- We learn, through vivid example, to beware of that which is false, temporal, and worthless.
- We learn about consequences by experiencing the suffering and joy of others.
- We learn to communicate from the best communicators of all time (and deep, clear communication is essential for healthy relationships).
Literature shared becomes a “living memory.” It opens an arena of common space, a context within which we can move toward greater understanding of our world. The characters and settings we encounter in literature become a vivid shorthand by which we can communicate an idea. To describe someone as a Hamlet, or as a Bertie Wooster, offers a far more vivid picture of their personality and character than the use of simple adjectives, but without the common foundation of literature, the comparison becomes opaque.
Classic literature and cultural literacy
When E.D. Hirsch wrote about cultural literacy, he warned that without a shared foundation of common knowledge, literacy would be lost. To be literate, and to communicate clearly using the most vivid and memorable metaphors available, you must not only be able to read, but you must also understand what you read and hear in its proper context. You must understand both text and subtext.
If you could hear the name “Hamlet” without thinking of the complex interplay of revenge, indecision, and circumstance as it relates to the conversation, you would be missing the point of the allusion, and possibly the entire point that is being conveyed. You would be like a child who feels left out and bored by adult conversation — not because it is actually boring, but because his childish ignorance deprives him of the background needed for understanding. Contemporary writing, including journalism, is full of allusions to classic literature that add depth and meaning — as long as they are understood. To lack a literary foundation is to be left behind.
Literature an essential cornerstone of literacy. It is experience distilled, and it illuminates personal experience in a way that nothing else can. Pliny the Younger wasn’t exaggerating about the capacity of literature to enrich life when he wrote that “Literature is both my joy and my comfort: it can add to every happiness and there is no sorrow it cannot console.” Great literature is timeless and relevant because the central concerns of humanity — love, loss, change, challenge, truth, beauty, and the nature of reality (among others) — change little across the millennia.
I could write more, but I’m back to work on Excellence in Literature. It looks as though the publication date for the first editions will be January 2008. It’s taken longer than I expected to transfer everything from old PC Word files to new InDesign files on my Mac, but the reward will be much more information, and a nice, clear layout. So I think it will definitely be worth the wait!