Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Reading the Classics

Well, last week I wrote a column about how awesome books in general are, and after a great discussion on books and future Ivory Cubicle articles, KatieLeah left a comment…

“If you convince me to read more classic literature I will be impressed.”

…so here goes.

Why You Should Read The Classics If You Want To Embiggen Your Soul.

Many people dismiss the “classics of Western civilization” as a list of books picked out by stuffy old academics who need to “get with the times” and realize that “being old” isn’t a sufficient criterion for determining whether or not a book is worth reading. Others argue that the common litmus test for the classics, “a book that has stood the test of time,” is nothing short of “chronological snobbery from the Ivory Tower.”

To that, I say (mustering as much pretentious conservative British grouchiness as possible) – Poppycock!

The key to unpacking the misconception is distinguishing between the phrases “the book is old” and the “the book has stood the test of time.” The first is merely an indicative statement that tells us when the book was written. The second is an evaluative statement that the book has continued to demonstrate its relevance to each generation after its writing. In other words, the second statement indicates that a classic is a book that, rather than having a brief flash of popularity and fading into obscurity, has continued to fascinate people from different times and different cultures. It is a book that is not bound to the spirit of its age, but rather speaks to basic truths of morality and needs of human nature that transcend cultures and generations. In short, it is not old, it is timeless.

The clash over the classics ultimately boils down to a clash between an absolute, transcendent moral order and a socially-constructed philosophy of morality and human nature. The former viewpoint, endorsed by most Christians, theists, and even the odd atheist or two, argues that there is a universal moral law that holds across all of human experience. The latter, endorsed by the naturalists, existentialists and pragmatists of today, argues that truth is not universal, nor absolute, and it varies depending on a society’s preference. For the latter, classics simply tell us what other people have done in the past, it cannot tell us what universal moral truth is because there is no universal moral truth to talk about.

But for those who believe in a transcendent moral law, perhaps the law of God written on the hearts of man (see Romans 2), it is unsurprising to see common themes popping up across cultures and generations. It is also unsurprising to see that works of literature which discuss those themes continue to be read by people from different times and cultures. And if these classics contain truths that endure across human nature, then they tell us what is most essential about being human – they equip us to understand ourselves as individuals, in relation to our fellow man, in relation to our world, and, in the case of Christian classics, in relation to our God.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. I've had this conversation many times with my brother: Me: "You should read *insert-name-of-really-old-classic-book" Him: But that sounds boringgggggg
    Me: How so? Its really interesting!
    Him: Its boring because its old.
    Saying 'because its old, thus it's boring' proves nothing, other than how stupid you can make yourself sound (no offence to anyone who has said this before, I probably have once or twice). I mean, the Bibles old, and it is certainly not boring, at all. I love old books because it lets you into a world of the past, how people thought then and now, also its nice to get away from the slang/disrespect that everyone is accustomed with now. Not to say that people didn't use slang or weren't disrespectful many years back, but they used an almost grander way of talking (At least in a lot of old English lit books, etc.) Classics are simply amazing,and people need to have a greater appreciation for books that have stood the test of time. The End.

  2. Up front: I realize that my experience (oldest of 9 homeschoolers) is hardly indicative of the rest of the world, and so perhaps—probably?—I am out of touch with the rest of the world. However:

    I think the real reason people complain about the classics being old is that they're written oldly. It's less difficult to read the NIV than the KJV. It's easier to read John Grisham than John Bunyan. David Baldacci than David Copperfield. Jaws than Moby-Dick. The Da Vinci Code than Paradise Lost. Twilight than Romeo and Juliet. The Lord of the Rings—itself almost or already a classic—than Beowulf. They're not all written oldly, but enough are to taint the label with "oldness."

    Don't get me wrong; I believe we've lost something tremendous when we can't communicate like these authors did, or even understand such communication. However, I think that most people don't read the classics because they don't understand or can't comprehend them, or worse, because they think they won't be able to.

    My recommendation for the guy who wants to read the classics but thinks he can't? Start easy. Treasure Island and Pride and Prejudice are basically written in modern English. If you find the right translation of Les Miserables, it is too. Mark Twain and The Lord of the Rings obviously are. (If you want to unconsciously work yourself into older English, PLEASE read The Lord of the Rings.) Maybe The Great Gatsby. And as you go through the easier works, you'll find that your familiarity with a different style of English has grown. Then try something harder, but short. Maybe Jules Verne or A Tale of Two Cities. Perhaps another Jane Austen novel. Then longer: Moby-Dick or another Dickens novel. If you never work yourself up to Shakespeare or Milton, that's probably OK. But you can read a lot more than you think you can.

  3. I am duly impressed.

    I knew your first argument quite well but your latter two paragraphs.. Excellent. Expect to receive a recommendation request as soon as I get on top of school enough to have time =P

  4. I love the old vs. timeless distinction. And the last paragraph was awesome... as are you. :D

  5. Some of my favorite books have been The Count of Monte Cristo, A Christmas Carol, Ben-Hur, and more(some of which I never would of read had it not been for the GenJ book club:-)). I think part of why I love them so much is there are good godly morals in there that have been disregarded by our culture today, perhaps that's why our culture disregards them as "old"?
    One thing I try to think of when I'm picking entertainment is the word "Amuse". "Muse" means to think and "a" means not: Not think. Not that's it's wrong to be amused once and a while, I just try not to make that my main focus.
    Thanks for the encouragement to go and read "old" books (which is something I haven't done in a while)!