Sunday, May 6, 2012

Reading the Classics?

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?"

I say 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

'The Classics, '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 something.

What to Read

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 hand.

My Experience

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 Out

Again, they might not appeal to you at all. Some of the great works I have discovered include:

Augustine's Confessions.

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.

Homer: Iliad, Odyssey.

Love the Ancient epics: Gilgamesh, etc.

Read the Bible, darnit!

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).

Dante! So good, both the Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova.

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Sometimes quite adult reading!)

A couple others, as I quickly go through history here. I'm just making a few suggestions to get you started...

Shakespeare: the Tragedies, all of them, especially, Othello and Hamlet.

Melville's Moby Dick.

Tolstoy: War and Peace and The Cossacks.

Dostoevsky: Brothers Karamazov, Notes from the Underground, and Crime and Punishment.

I know there are a million I am forgetting. But here was a quick list with an emphasis on fiction.


  1. You're welcome for the blog idea.

    I should charge commission...

  2. Why do I put so much effort into preserving people's anonymity!

  3. Yeah right. My blog doesn't even get a shout out. Thanks. LOL

  4. Sometimes (actually, often) an introduction will give away major aspects of the plot, which can take away some of the enjoyment for the reader. I usually avoid reading an introduction until I've read the work once.