Skimming the New York Times bestseller lists or glancing at the displays in bookstores makes me anxious. Despite being an avid reader and bibliophile, I haven’t bought a new book in years. Browsing for books leaves me with nothing but a sense of agonizing failure and a single thought in mind:how am I going to be able to read all these new books?
Fortunately for me, most new books published each year end up on the discount pile—forgotten, useless, and rejected. And while reading new books is a great way to catch up on all of the current events in today’s world, I’ve found solace in a different age of literature: classic novels.
Whenever the topic comes up in conversation, I get the same reactions. Why go through all the effort of wrestling with styles of language and writing that are harder to connect with than contemporary novels? Why attempt to make sense of plots with characters that live in a completely foreign culture? Aren’t they boring? Obsolete? Simply incomprehensible?
I beg to differ. Classic novels are the milestones of our literary traditions. They played pivotal roles in shaping the way we read and write today. In fact, I would even argue that they can enhance your reading experience tenfold.
Some classics rose to fame because they were models of movements (realism, romanticism) or genres (science fiction, mystery). They spurred literary trends because they were the ones who did it first and remembered because they did it best. Some classics hold their title because they pushed the envelope. By questioning conventional ideas and breaking from tradition, they became markers of creative rebellion, of dissent and change.
Once you familiarize yourself with the classics, you start to understand where a lot of the other books you’ve read fit in. You’ll begin to identify influences and references in your reading that you weren’t able to before. you’ll see how the classics contributed to their respective style, subject, and themes. Perhaps a writer’s best work pays homage to another writer, innovates a new literary style, or defines conventions.
Despite what you might think about the themes and subjects covered in classic novels, they’re surprisingly relevant. You might even find yourself relating to characters’ dilemmas, such as the narrator’s rocky path to self-discovery in Ellison’s Invisible Man, or Raskolnikov’s remorse in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Despite the differences in politics and lifestyle in classic novels, it’s easy to find connections between today’s world and classic novel settings.
Many classic novel cynics incorrectly assume that classic novels are all the same. Although “classic” is considered a literary genre, it encompasses novels of all different kinds. Some of the more popular classics explore adventure, great historical movements, social justice issues, ethics and morality, romance, fantasy, and even predict the future. Take any classic novel off the shelf and you’ll find that it covers a multitude of themes, with a depth unrivaled by modern literature. You’ll soon realize that the flashy modern sci-fi novels trending today are no comparison to the classics.
Think about reading like traveling the world. The classics are the must-see historical sights- the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall, the pyramids. Similar to these sites, the classics have withstood the test of time. Although some people prefer to see the tall skyscrapers and modern architecture, the history and brilliance of the classic sights will never be forgotten.