Reading the classics

Why it’s good to mix it up with a classic every now and again

My literary diet is mostly contemporary fiction. Last week, I finished George Eliot’s Silas Marner. It kept getting pushed to the bottom of my bedside bookstack. I would look at it, think it seemed like too much ‘work’ and pick up something else from the pile.

Classics aren’t usually an easy read. They come from another age and bring the language of that time with them. That’s part of the reason they don’t feel easy but also why it’s good to give them a go now and again (that and the quiet hope that when I read Chekhov my own writing will improve through osmosis).

The way that they navigate around a sentence is different to how we do it now. The meaning is in there somewhere, it’s just not immediately clear. There’s a formality and inversion that can make it feel like you’re reading another language. After a few chapters though, it starts to feel normal and you’ve just given your brain some excellent training.

It’s also a great exercise in extending your attention span. They move slower than modern narratives do. There’s a lot of detail, exposition and they tell rather than show (gasp!). And really, what’s the rush? I confess, I skim more in a classic than I do in a modern book but once I’m into it, I don’t mind the digressions and departures that eventually get you to the action.

And I’m a voyeur, so I love being transported not just into someone else’s life but into another age. I love the historical placing and social insight you get when you’re reading from the past. Some of it makes you furious, and very happy that you live where and when you do, but what surprises me even more, is how a lot of it could be written now.

We’re thinking about the same things now that they did back then. The biggies are all there; love, loss, power, loyalty, betrayal, pride, jealousy, families, wealth.

In Silas Marner the loss of a child is no less for the infant mortality rates and there’s always someone looking for a way to get money for nothing. In Balzac’s Cousin Bette, they’re all talking about how expensive real estate is in Paris, worrying about their reputations and spending money that they don’t have.

And the Russians with their ability to paint the politics of an empire and an era against the internal struggles within families are surely the origin template for the ‘great American’ novels that have followed.

Life hasn’t changed so much. We as humans haven’t changed so much and I find that equal parts crazy and comforting.

When I say classics, I don’t think I’ve read anything earlier than Shakespeare. So now I want to know, the Greeks, the Romans, did they look for acknowledgement from parents? Did they take heartbreak as badly as we do? Feel inadequate against their peers?

Where do you suggest I start if I want to read an ancient classic?

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