Why I read classics

This topic came to mind when I followed up Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley and The Professor with the 2010 book Heaven is For Real by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent. The Bronte books were bound together in one 900 page book which I picked up at the library. The library lending period is 4 weeks, after which you can renew for another 4 weeks if there are no holds on it. After that you are at the mercy of the librarian. I finished in 7 weeks and 4 days. The reading was slow, mainly accomplished in the evenings in bed. With such a heavy book propped up in front of me, I became aware of each time I nodded off, thus causing the book to tip either backwards onto my stomach or forwards into my face. I often had to force myself to put the book down before I had read a satisfactory amount. I would not describe the stories as gripping; neither were the novels “page-turners.” But I lived those 7+ weeks with Bronte’s characters, and their stories became urgent through my close association with them. I did feel disappointment at the turn of the last page. I had traveled through the book and returned home, left with clinging memories.

My sister-in-law lent me the Heaven is for Real book. It’s a decent size, but I read it in two days. It made me cry. It made me laugh. It made me pray. It made me keep reading even when I should have been doing something else. I am not here to say this was a bad book. Far from it–the true story it tells is amazing, and I found the writing personal, honest and moving.

The contrast between the way I read the two books struck me as profound (and that is why I am writing–to learn from myself the depths of what I feel). I “liked” both books. But in the Bronte novels I entered a world larger than my own, and I read with as much care as I could. I made the best of it. In the Heaven book, I entered a narrower world. The writers made the best of the story, and my own reaction became a result of that. Manipulation might be too strong a word. I’m not sure if I was manipulated by the author, but I do know that I don’t like a book to force strong emotions from me. I prefer subtlety. Tragedy and comedy are fine. When I read Shakespeare’s plays, I do not react with crying and outward laughter. It would seem that the bigger the world inside the book, the more room I have to live inside it. The smaller the world inside the book, I am forced to live (and react) outside it.

There are certainly contemporary books which house large rooms to fall into, but that is trial and error. The classics have been lived in by thousands of readers, and I can trust myself to such tried and true stories without breaking my solemn reading face. I certainly don’t read only classics, but when faced with the decision of what to read next, more often I will gravitate toward those older volumes.

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6 thoughts on “Why I read classics”

  1. It seems that the classics require more effort, but the payoff is greater. It’s interesting to think about what will be considered classics in the future though. Most of the high-brow modern literature just annoys me, so I prefer to read books that I connect with on an emotional level- as long as the writing is decent, I don’t really care whether a book is new or old.

    1. I wonder if the classics of the future will be put in big volumes, with the author’s early work, later work, etc, or if they will be put in anthologies, or if it will be harder to recognize a classic. So many books are reviewed as “instant classics” or “enduring,” and it makes me wonder if classics will be based on popularity and good reviews, or if the writing will stand for itself.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your insights, Amy, as you compared reading the Bronte classics and some others with the contemporary book you recently finished. It is all very good food for thought! Thank you.

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