A bibliophile addicted to the smell and feel of a book in my hand, I finally broke down and bought a Kindle, not because I planned to do all my reading electronically, but because I needed a copy of a particular book for an article I was writing and I needed it quickly. Later, after a much considered electronics purchase, I was able to download another book within sixty seconds at no cost to me. Although this no-cost business is obviously a serious advantage in the strain of these economic times, it is the least of the reasons to read, or in many cases, reread the classics. The enduring themes, the eloquent diction and structure of the language, and the knowledge accumulated toward building your own cultural literacy should be enough to convince you to continue reading the classics with uncommon enthusiasm. If you haven't picked up a classic in years, let me urge you to add at least one to your summer reading list. Here's why.
Enduring themes, those ideas about life that transcend time, repeatedly permeate and extend their wisdom throughout the whole of literature today. In essence, they continue to teach us not only that some things never change but also that we have much to learn from them. People everywhere understand these themes on the level that currently relates to the issues with which they are coping. Thus, when we identify with both the problems and the ideals of fiction that essentially illustrate our own familiar dilemmas, our losses and gains, we somehow feel more prepared to make sense of our own lives. In 1624 the English poet John Donne wrote, "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind," which is precisely why enduring themes strike a chord with all of humanity. Our lives share common threads that bind us together.
Through reading about courage or friendship or isolation or injustice, we can observe the outcomes and compare or contrast them with our own experiences. The concomitant image reflected in the glass enables us to invent and also come to terms with the solutions we have chosen. An analysis of these themes expands our choices and shows us the consequences of living wisely or living foolishly. Consciousness is the key. Through identifying with a relevant literary theme's message, we have a reference for living that can alleviate some of our fear of ambiguity, and as most of us know too well, nothing produces anxiety with greater severity than uncertainty. More than a few readers wrestling with indecision, however, have taken action based on what they read in a piece of literature.
Classic literature reflects language of another age which was imbibed with more sophisticated diction and sentence structure than modern English today. Anthropologists and linguists surmise that the more the masses are educated, the less sophisticated the language becomes. At a time when Renaissance England was borrowing thousands of words from other languages and Shakespeare was coining words he needed to express the art and craft of poetry and drama, the English language blossomed and became rich, affording the ability to communicate more articulately. Yet the masses were not educated at that time, only the elite and usually the male elite receiving that privilege. The advent of the printing press began to create an educated but small middle class of readers, and the translation of the Bible into English made it the most popular book in the sixteenth century, especially the Geneva Bible. In the 21st century we continue to add words to the language at a rapid rate through increased science and technology, but eloquence is often not a goal or even a desire for the masses who engage in it. The popular books of today follow that trend in both fiction and nonfiction, appealing to the simpler wants and needs of the average reader as well as the highly specialized needs of the professional, not a criticism of current markets if more people are indeed picking up a book. Or a Kindle. Nevertheless, it is interesting and perhaps even a bit disappointing that social media experts recommend using a simpler vocabulary in order to appeal to larger numbers of readers. Reading a paragraph or even a line of beautifully written prose in a classic work can jolt the senses, enlightening one's cerebral pathways, and for that reason alone we should gladly welcome the influence it can contribute. We no more want to lose the art of eloquent discourse, written and spoken, than we do classic art and music.
In 1987 E.D. Hirsch published Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and the cultural literacy war began. In our attempt to promote social equality, we engaged in the democratization of education. English teachers everywhere had to choose a side or vacillate with unsteady wavering for years regarding the curricula they were teaching, most having significant influence in the decisions about content taught. Now that the furore has settled into a vague memory, today's resulting lack of familiarity with art, literature, history, geography, and other cultural experiences among a growing number of middle and high school students in this country has resulted in greater difficulty as they tackle, often unsuccessfully, the allusions and once common expressions in their required reading, impairing their full understanding of it. Take, for example, the following lines from classic literature that people once knew well. Which ones can you identify?
1. To take arms against a sea of troubles
2. The game is afoot.
3. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.
4. Double, double, toil and trouble
5. He was beaten...but he was not broken.
6. Age cannot wither her.
7. Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.
8. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.
9. All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.
10. So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
If you didn't recognize any of these lines, you are among the many, not the few.
Check out the answers:
1. Shakespeare, Hamlet
2. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes borrowed from Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1
3. Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
4. Shakespeare, Macbeth
5. Jack London, The Call of the Wild
6. Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
7. Sir Walter Scott, Marmion
8. Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2
9. Shakespeare, As You Like It
10. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Shared knowledge involves more than the basic information you need to know to carry on a conversation with people wherever you are. It's having the information that is needed to interact with text and in conversation and discussion intelligently and articulately. A critical chunk of that information includes the basics of literary pieces and their historical settings. As in art and music, we need to foster that creative wealth of humanity or it will atrophy, and civilization will be the unfortunate recipient of this neglect. The quality of being human--the way we understand and treat others that establishes harmony among all people--depends on the continued evolution of literacy in all of its many forms, not the least of which is literature.
Reading, in any genre and via any media, keeps culture alive and thriving. In our capricious age of information, however, it is the art of storytelling that can be the catalyst that effects change in our lives. The overwhelming number of new titles of fiction that emerge each year offers something for every taste, but perhaps, in light of the strong arguments in favor of literature that has survived the test of time, you might pause a moment as you're making those choices and add one or two classics to your list.