The classics. When it comes to literature, the classics are those books noteworthy for their quality, originality, or membership in particular canon.
Personally, “classic literature” reminds me of the theme from Masterpiece Theater. I can hear those Baroque trumpets in my mind as I see the camera panning across the library of an English countryside manor — dark wood shelves and wall panels, rich carpets, and many leather-bound tomes strewn across Victorian furniture.
It’s all very regal and dignified to me, but some people find it stuffy. And unfortunately, in general, that’s kind of how many people today have come to view classic literature: antiquated and irrelevant. After all, what do the societal elites prancing around the pages of Pride and Prejudice have to do with socializing today? For some readers, it can even be hard to relate to books from the last century, like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby…until of course, it comes out as a movie.
And right there, you see that the essence of the classics is not so dated at all. Just remember that every holiday season, we’re endeared to the nostalgia (and grime) of Victorian England as Charles Dickens portrays it in A Christmas Carol. The language of the classics may be hard to get through, but behind the words, the stories are timeless.
And as it turns out, reading the classics can also be immensely beneficial, so I’m personally interested in promoting their resurgence. I believe the classics carry with them a few immediate benefits for readers:
#1: The classics will improve your communication skills.
In his landmark book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a scientific study that found expertise in anything requires 10,000 hours of investment. That said, if you want to become an expert at communication, you need to practice…communication. Many of the contemporary articles and books we ingest communicate ideas in short sentences and two-line paragraphs. By contrast, the written word of the past (in many cases) expressed ideas in longer sentences and paragraphs— which incidentally, are more conducive for communicating complex concepts. The byte-sized reading material of today (which for most people consists mainly of social media posts) are not so helpful for developing superior communication skills. But crack open the novels of yesteryear and you’ll find yourself immersed in a more substantive primer for learning how to get your point across, eloquently.
#2: The classics will improve your vocabulary.
Which brings me to my next point: vocabulary. Having a solid vocabulary allows you to say what you want to say with more precision and greater effect on the listener or reader. Our vocabulary today tends to be on the simpler side, especially in the online content we digest (and it doesn’t help that using shorter words in articles decrease the visitor bounce rate). Unfortunately, when you’re not trying to keep digital visitors on a web page, a downsized vocabulary can leave you feeling like a caveman at a moment where you need to be a stirring romantic poet or a captain on the high seas (whatever those might equate to in your real life). Classic literature will give you a more expansive vocabulary, if you’re willing to periodically consultant a dictionary or puzzle out a meaning based on context…which will also help you build your reasoning skills.
#3: The classics take you away from too much screen time.
Most people today spend hours in front of screens, myself included. We do our work on computers, we socialize on our phones, and we get our entertainment in high definition. Ultimately this is bad for our brains, bad for our eyes, and bad for our mental health. It also happens to be especially bad for our sleep. Screen time before bed can quickly spiral out of control into an all-night Facebook binge. At the very least, the blue lighting on screen devices is among the very worst types of lighting for sleep, throwing off our natural rhythms. What about the idea of curling up with a good book, scented candle, and glass of hot tea instead? Not only would that provide all the intellectual benefits outlined above, but it would also provide the benefit of a relaxing evening and a more restful night of sleep.
#4: The classics will make you wise.
Wisdom usually comes from life experience, which of course means you have to live through something in order to learn about it…what to do, and what not to do next time. But what if there was a way to get years of life experience in just a few hours? Well, with reading the classics, that’s entirely possible. As mentioned, classics are particularly noteworthy for the quality of their writing and their timeless quality. The moral of the story as expressed in a classic is particularly well expressed and explores its nuances, which is great for readers. The fast-food content of today’s online world is often hastily executed, thoughtless, and lacking reflection (something I’ve been guilty of many times, though I hope at least you find this article leaves you with some insightful takeaways). By contrast, the classics of yesteryear are very intentional, well-crafted pieces of literature, written by individuals who were not distracted by Tweets, Pings, and Dings.
A final case for the classics
Once you get immersed in a good book, you find that it’s just so entertaining you can’t put it down. True, it can be initially hard to connect with books written a century, two centuries, or even three centuries ago (I’m not even touching Shakespeare, Milton, Spenser in this article). But getting past that hurdle may only require a few hours of investment at the most. Then you’re on your way to better communication skills, an increased vocabulary, healthier habits around entertainment, and timeless wisdom. And just like today, there is a genre for everyone and every interest: romance, adventure, science fiction, and even horror. So what will you choose?
This post was previously published on Medium.com.
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