I've been obsessed with an unexpected question a friend asked me a few days ago. It was something like:
"How do I read classic literature?"
the question was something like that. I've merged many related
questions into one.
Short answer: read what appeals to you. You don't
have to like all the great works of literature.
Definition of Terms
'Classical Literature', and 'great literature' are not completely convertible
terms. Classical Literature usually refers to things written by ancient Greeks
and Romans. The Classics usually refers to great literature that quite often
includes their works, but also every great work since then. Sometimes we speak
of the 'Great Books' is this regard, but the 'Great Books' is not biased towards
fiction, which 'the Classics' is.
The questioner was understanding the
reading of 'The Classics' with a 'Classical Education.' That is a bit of a
mistake too. A Classical Education refers to the kind of education people
received before other pedagogies took over. (These newer systems included some
of the older disciplines, but incorporated other fields of knowledge too.) The
so-called Classical Curriculum was based loosely on the Trivium
(language arts) and Quadrivium (maths) that emerged from the Ancient
World - from authors like Augustine and Boethius. Any education you encounter
today styling itself 'Classical' involves a lot of interpretation; it is not an
equivocal term. For instance, a Classical Education today includes the study of
Latin and sometimes Greek, history. That is generally an accurate reflection of
the 'Classical Education' as understood from roughly the 15th to the 19th
century, but not by the Medieval World nor the Ancient. I don't want to split
hairs here, but people who speak of the Classical Curriculum as if it is an
objective matter, should read some history! (But, alas, history is not itself
one of the traditional 7 liberal disciplines!)
To read 'the Classics,'
then, is not to gain a 'Classical Education.' Although, of course, it is to gain
a good education (even if not complete). To read the Classics is to read works
written by people who had received a Classical Education - and that counts for
So, to my friend, and people like my friend who are
interested in advancing their education, about the reading of the Classics, I
will say this.
First, for a list of great books you can look here at the original 'Adler'
list, or here at
Thomas Aquinas College's.
For someone who intends on reading great
fictional literature, there is a lot on these lists that you will not interest
you. If you wanted to compile an exclusively 'fictional' list, you could look here or
here. No list is
perfect, but these two aren't bad.
As I said to my friend, it's okay not
to like something that others say is a classic or great or the greatest. It's
okay not to like Dickens. Someone recently said to me that he didn't like the
Iliad. I love it! I think that in a case like this that my words above
about understanding the context can really help. The Iliad, the
Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of Genesis, Beowulf were
written by people from cultures so different from own that it is almost
astonishing that we can get anything from them at all. We need to learn about
those cultures to more deeply appreciate their literary artifacts - big time! I
read perhaps a dozen academic studies of St. Augustine's Confessions
every year. These are attempts to figure out what Augustine was actually trying
to say. Shouldn't it be obvious what he was trying to say? Obviously not. I am
sure that sometimes you don't get what I am trying to say, and you and I share a
language and a culture! I don't like Shakespeare's Comedies, but I don't want it
to be because I don't understand them (like I don't understand his Henry
V, which I think is just awful!) One quick bit of advice - read the
introductions that many modern editions include of these classical works put at
the front of the volume. Or go to Wikipedia and look up the author and
his age. Better yet, read histories and studies of the subject matter at
I guess I was fascinated by my friend's
question the other day, because I deliberately ventured down the same path about
twenty years ago, asking myself the questions - what will make me
well-educated? and where is the great literature? One thing that
happened to me, that'll no doubt happen to anyone who ventures down this path is
that you will begin to set your own path because you will fall in love. I didn't
see it coming, but I fell in love with Tolstoy. I discovered him after about a
year of serious reading, and he changed my life.
Some Of My Favourites That You Might Want To Check
Again, they might not appeal to you at all. Some
of the great works I have discovered include:
Any of the great histories of the Ancient World,
both pagan and Christian - so Thucydides, Herodotus, Arrian, Tacitus, Eusebius,
Palladius, etc., etc.
No fiction so far.
Love the Ancient epics: Gilgamesh, etc.
Read the Bible,
Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy - an allegory, so
philosophy in the form of a tale.
Song of Roland and so many of
the Chansons de Geste (Medieval knights' stories).
good, both the Divine Comedy and La Vita
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Sometimes quite adult
A couple others, as I quickly go through history here. I'm just
making a few suggestions to get you started...
Tragedies, all of them, especially, Othello and
Melville's Moby Dick.
and Peace and The Cossacks.
Karamazov, Notes from the Underground, and Crime and
I know there are a million I am forgetting. But here
was a quick list with an emphasis on fiction.