Note: This post was originally published on the Professional Writing blog at Taylor University in 2016, but I thought it was important, so I wanted to talk about it again!
There’s something special about brushing the dust away from a spine and recognizing the book.
Some of my favorite literary friends can be found, as my copy of Macbeth was a few years ago, in the shadowy corner of an out-of-the-way bookstore. The Odyssey, Beowulf, Hamlet, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Lord of the Rings, A Tale of Two Cities, and dozens of others. As far as I know; when people ask me about my favorite book, they aren’t looking for an answer like Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale or Milton’s Paradise Lost.
I’m used to a few strange looks when I spend a bit of my hard-earned cash on Lady Gregory’s history of the Irish theatre and a beat-up Shakespeare drama. It’s come to my attention that most people probably don’t avoid homework by reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Who knew?
But I want to point out that there’s a reason we call them “classics.” My writing has gained immeasurable depth through my study of literature. So while I also have a healthy love for Harry Potter and Inkheart, it’d be a tragedy if any of us left Homer on the shelf.
I’d be nowhere without my classical friends. Dickens taught me foreshadowing. I learned the subtleties of humor and psychological struggle from Shakespeare. Voice from Harper Lee. Structure from Tolkien. The power of a last line from Emily Dickinson.
Have you ever wanted to understand the depth and complexities of the French battle for freedom? You’ll learn more from Hugo’s Les Miserables than any history text. Curious about the differences between Roman and Greek thought? Compare the Odyssey and the Aeneid. Trying to figure out where that one phrase of your mom’s originated? I can almost promise you it was Shakespeare.
There’s incredible richness in the writings of those who came before. Somehow, a small number of authors throughout history have strummed a cord in the heart of humanity. We haven’t been able to get their words out of our heads, and that’s why we keep reading them and making our children read them. Whatever your thoughts are on the Metamorphosis, Kafka understood something very real about people. Hamlet’s struggle between pretend insanity and real madness is captivating because it’s genuine. It isn’t only recently that we’ve come to understand human psychology. Our ancestors understood it for hundreds of years, but they didn’t have the science-y words to describe it yet.
So they told stories. And those stories, simplistic as they may sometimes seem, reach us easier than any textbook ever will.
I think that’s why we read books at all. They help us understand ourselves and the world around us. They make things plain that would be too complex otherwise. This is especially true of the classics.
Reading is a writer’s lifeblood. In the words of one of my favorite poets, Emily Dickinson: “How frugal is the Chariot that bears a Human soul.”