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Read Classics

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

Classics are not everyone cup of tea. Not everyone wants to learn a new language, and make no mistake that if you go back in time one hundred years, even in your native tongue you are going back in time to a new language. Idioms are different, words are different, culture in which the book is steeped is different, and the goals of the author are sometimes as foreign as you can imagine.

Why do it?

First, what is a classic? I come from a scientific background, so I am going to take a semi-scientific stance on this. It is more exacting than “The books people say are classics.” I will say it is something more akin to classic books are the books other books are based on, and which influence the world of their era as evidenced by citation, and reuse.

For example, in modern consideration, a movie which comes out, and is seen by some few thousand people, and is forgotten is considered less classical than for example the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This seems backward, because people will say the small arthouse films are more classic style than the blockbuster hits. But in this definition, citation is king, queen and ruler of all. This is not intended to be a value judgement; this is a popularity contest.

Let’s take Shakespeare. Sure, not everyone loves him, but he coined hundreds of words still used today, and the plays are referenced by movies and hundreds of other books. To understand English literature then, and even now, is not fully possible without understanding him as a source material. Similarly, the corpus of literature from each culture enables us to understand what is important to that culture at that time.

Classic works are touched by and touch others. Would we have vampires in our world if not for the writing of Bram Stoker? You don’t have to like the book to understand its impact. Though if you are going to read classics this is a highly recommend one. Did you know for example Dracula didn’t die in sunlight? That he needed to sleep in consecrated ground? That he was old, and rather grotesque in most of his portrayal? Why did we change these through time? What changed from that culture to our own more than a hundred years later? What can we learn?

Think of reading though classics as a lesson in historiography. Try not to judge the past. Try to understand what it had to teach us, because even things we disagree with vehemently can hone our own ability to discuss them.

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Mar 30, 2023

Thanks for this post. It was really thought provoking: Shakespeare himself based much of his plays on his own classics, e.g. Chaucer's Troilus and Cressida.

Regarding reading items we may disagree with, there are a lot of books we are typically required to read like Huck Finn or the Color Purple with themes awfully morally backwards to what we think now. It helps us reflect on the changes and open up conversational paths between people of different backgrounds with some common ground.

Mar 30, 2023
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I think it is important to not lose the historiography of the world we come from. We can be annoyed angry or even disagree with some of the classic writers of our language, understand they impacted who we are today, and move forward from there. Huck Finn is a tremendous example for people to read BECAUSE it is backward compared to our viewpoints today. It lets us understand how far we have come.

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