So a question was posed recently of whether one should feel “guilty” about not reading the great classics of literature. It’s a distressing question, because it gives these important and amazing works a flavor of burden, as though they are unpleasant responsibilities that fulfill some sort of cultural requisite. It’s easy to see how this came to be – whenever we institutionalize an art and make a whole industry of its criticism and analysis, things start to get esoteric, detached, insulated. This easily turns off people who feel like they are on the outside of that field. It’s a trapping of the sciences, too. Delve far enough into any science and you hit the point where they are speaking a language utterly foreign to the lay-person, virtually existing in a separate world.
Many people feel this way about great literature, and I think that’s a damn shame. They find it intimidating, or assume it’s dry and irrelevant. It reminds them of the tedium of the classroom, the stuffy murk of academia. But here’s the thing: learning is the absolute most natural impulse of humanity. We are born curious sponges, and this thirst only dries up through our convoluted approaches to learning. We turn it into a responsibility, so that even as adults we come to associate it with duty and un-fun-ness. Sure, learning is work, of a sort, but it’s the best kind of work, the kind that foments growth and leaves you feeling happily spent and accomplished.
Great literature from the likes of Cervantes, Tolstoy, Poe, Goethe, Nabokov, Dickens, Fitzgerald, Camus… it does more than tell a story. It expands our inner lives. It connects us to our human legacy, each a vital link in the literary chain. It asks questions that we are still asking, probes our heights and depths. And though these books seem grand and imposing in this light, they were written to be read by regular old people like you and me, read widely and deeply and often. They are not sacrosanct relics, but rather inexhaustible, accessible treasures with a value that grows with age.
Now I didn’t care for much “serious literature” when I was in school, even though I’ve always loved reading. I’d read the assigned books and write the papers, and I’d do well, but they seldom stuck with me. It wasn’t until I was out on my own that I began to really self-educate, seeking out new experiences and understanding. I’d go to thrift stores to get cheap paperbacks of the classics, devour them, let them digest in my brain for months. The trick was to ween myself out of the mindset of “learning = work”. I then found that I wanted to read these great books even if they were difficult or alien. I wanted to learn why they were great, why they mattered in the world, why the other authors that I loved loved them. Even if a classic didn’t become a personal favorite, I was always glad to have read it, because it gave me new perspectives and knowledge to draw from. New understanding.
Point is, no one should feel guilty about reading or not reading the literary heavyweights – we (probably) only get one life apiece, and we should fill it as we want. We should always go with what excites us, be it space operas or dead Russians, beat poetry or vampire romances. The thing is to realize that all literature is an awaiting experience, and the greatest of our writers have given us some amazing gifts. Those literary masterpieces that taunt us from their pedestals, those sacred tomes of the learned, those papery self-improvement projects that we keep putting off – they can easily become “wants” rather than “shoulds” with a little tweaking of perspective. Don’t view a classic as a responsibility, something to get around to, like a diet or oiling a squeaky door. Test it out, explore, let it pull you in naturally. Dive into the richness of the world, and you will emerge the gladder for it. Guaranteed.