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One of the most compelling articles I read last year was titled “on the inability to create purpose” by someone who writes under the name “elevenfortyseven.”¹ In it, they ask the question, “Is there a purpose for your existence which you feel completely overwrites your immediate purposes (work, family and various legal obligations)?” The answer, for most people, is “No.” Instead, “the stench of superficiality” has drained our drive. To that end, we seek out the least-challenging forms of activities, including books to read, because “the less we think, the comfier we are.”
As for the penchant for reading easy books, I am always surprised at the vehemence with which people argue against my suggestion that we all read more of the classics.² They seem to take it personally, as if I were disparaging them as “regular” folks, deprived of the opportunities or time to appreciate such works.
I’ve found that the anti-classics group acts as though reading has but one purpose: entertainment. But people read for knowledge and information, for understanding, for improving their own writing, for opinions, etc. Yet, to those who see but one main purpose, reading ought to be exclusively enjoyable, smooth and untrammeled by unknown vocabulary, “difficult” sentence structure, or ideas expressed in such a way they require rereading to suss them out. This is the same reason, by the way, that the author of the above article argues that people don’t pursue a “heroic purpose” in their lives. It’s just too hard.
How frustrating to argue over something that has brought me — and millions of others — untold joy because of its challenges, its lessons for all of us, told in unparalleled ways because of the author’s gifts and mastery of craft. In my own experience, I think of the struggles in misplaced passion experienced by Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary and Dorothea Brooke, the need to re-enter life after trauma that Hemingway’s veterans went through, the humanity of Huck Finn and Leopold Bloom, and so many other examples.
Reading the Classics Makes You Think About Writing Style
Several years ago, The American Scholar editors chose “Ten Best Sentences,” most of which are from so-called classic books.³ Featured are sentences by F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Hemingway, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Joan Didion, Dickens, Nabokov, among others.
In my quick analysis of one of these sentences by Hemingway—“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation”—from A Farewell to Arms, I notice the economy of his words and the structure of the sentence, a construction written in passive voice, thereby putting the emphasis on “anger,” not the true subject, “river.”
The sentence also leads into a syllepsis, a rhetorical trope that has one verb (“was washed”) and two different objects, in this case two prepositional phrases, “in the river” and “along with any obligation.” The effect is one of surprise and cleverness, because “river” is known to wash away physical objects, even non-objects like human beings, but “anger” is metaphorical, giving readers pause. Also unexpected is the phrase “a sense of obligation,” even more out of left field than “anger” with which it is linked, making us think, maybe even smile, over its compounded cleverness and perceptivity. We don’t usually find such masterly touches in sentences that aren’t written by those revered for their skill, thought, and eloquence. (And by the way, most of these writers were themselves readers of the classics, including Hemingway who made public his list of books for a young adult to read.)⁴
Hemingway’s List of Recommended Books for A Young Reader, 1934
At the very least, if we read closely and attentively, we’ll learn new vocabulary and new sentence structures — different ways of expression. I keep a dictionary handy when I read the classics. Sometimes I refer to guidebooks (certainly for Ulysses). But great books aren’t just great because of their style: Couched within those tropes and schemes will be thoughts and ideas that concern all of us, in a manner and to a degree not found in those works not yet tested by time.
Reading the Classics Can Focus Your Writing on What Unites Us
Classics dwell on universal themes: love, death, evil, goodness, corruption, survival, pride, faith, constraints (societal and moral, and also those relating to gender, race, and class), to name a few. They differ from other books in the singular way they integrate and elaborate upon those themes. As Roosevelt Montás, former director of the Center for the Core Curriculum at Columbia College, writes, “Great works are great because of an evident yet elusive capacity to illuminate our shared humanity.”⁵ Being a writer of distinction means you make your readers pause not only because of your writing style but also because of the content of your work, the way you address themes that all humans can identify with at some level.
Reading the Classics Teaches Us Both Style and Substance
The topic of my master’s degree was Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, so I’ll look closely at one example of how a classic excels at both style and substance. As readers, we can appreciate young Isabel Archer’s fervid imagination, one some others, like her cousin Ralph Touchett, valued as an asset. She is someone, in James’s words, “on whom nothing is lost.” But with Ralph’s endowing her with the means to put that imagination to good use, Isabel blindly marries an unfeeling aesthete, Gilbert Osmond, believing his love for beautiful art objects must mean he is someone of refinement and taste. The opposite is true: “Under all his culture, his cleverness, his amenity, under his good-nature, his facility, his knowledge of life, his egotism lay hidden like a serpent in a bank of flowers.” In an organic melding of style and substance, James uses parallelism at the beginning of the sentence listing Osmond’s surface qualities as if to reflect Isabel’s unrelenting thoughts on how foolish she was to be deceived by such a man, then waits for the main clause to reveal his true nature by means of a perfect simile.
What Isabel does with this knowledge is what makes her so tragic, yet resonant, a heroine, all told in James’s inimitable prose. “Deep in her soul—deeper than any appetite for renunciation—was the sense that life would be her business for a long time to come.” I first read that sentence decades ago and have never forgotten it. Isabel learns from her mistake, but she is resilient. She will go on to live her life, but with lessons learned.
Why a Reading Challenge is Necessary
In a wonderfully insightful new book What the Thunder Said⁶ on the background of “The Waste Land,” the author, Jed Rasula, notes that T.S. Eliot knew that his poetry, especially “The Waste Land,” would be a challenge to many, but his writing choices were deliberate. “The difficulty was inevitable, not optional. It reflected the seismic fault of modernity,” Rasula notes. “Responding to a derelict world…art itself had to go off the rails.”
From classic works, we often learn about the concerns of the times in which they were written but also find their messages to be timeless. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot wrote about a sense of desolation after World War I, a time that demanded a more modernistic and starker approach to art than what had preceded it. Certainly, people since 1922, the year the poem was published, can still identify with its images because they evoke human emotions and feelings during a bleak time, but with a glimmer of hope at the end. That—in addition to the genius behind it—is why it is still read and celebrated. The classics are worth investing in for what they teach us about the human condition. But it appears as if our culture lauds the superficial more than ever. We want the easy route. Even many English Departments in universities have winnowed out the more challenging books from their required reading list for various reasons.
In 1941–42, W.H. Auden required over 6,000 pages of classic-heavy reading for his “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” class.⁷ Included were works by Kafka, Shakespeare, Melville, Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard, T.S. Eliot and more. The class was open to juniors, seniors and graduate students. Imagine how those works served as frigates, to borrow from Emily Dickinson, taking students lands away — expressing relatable truths in indelible ways. If it was acceptable back then to require such reading, why have times changed so significantly to the point where we seek out the easy, the superficial, even at the university level?
W.H. Auden’s syllabus for his 1940’s class “Fate and the Individual in European Literature”
Also, consider me unimpressed by those readers who post on social media how many books they’ve read so far in a year, then list those books, most of which are not known for their depth or difficulty. We aren’t going to be challenged if we read laterally — that is, on a sideways level that keeps us where we are. And our writing may well show it. If we want more than anything to be recognized by what we say and how we say it, then we need to work for it.
I know that reading great classics has helped me to become a better writer, better in the sense I try to be more engaging, more specific in my descriptions and images, more precise in my thoughts and ideas, realizing all the while I’ll never be on the list of the “greats.” Nevertheless, my debut novel will be coming out this year, one in which I tried to be conscious of my stylistic choices, of different ways of expressing characters’ emotions, all in an effort to challenge my readers to think, to react.
I understand people who love to read don’t necessarily have the time or inclination to tackle a classic book. COVID upended everything. People spend an inordinate amount of time on social media. Our young people are vulnerable. Life is hard. I’ve heard it all.
But to me, those are all the more reasons we ought to seek the wisdom and beauty found in the pages of classic books. How did people get through in the past? What did they learn from doing so? How did their writing and means of expression reflect their characters’ travails and subsequent hard-won wisdom?
Classics Help Us Find “Transcendental Knowledge”
The author mentioned in the first paragraph above says we’ve given up our search for “transcendental knowledge,” such as that found in the classics. Yet, people on their deathbeds, the author writes, overwhelmingly regret not having followed their true calling, one that would have required more than seeking that which comforts or entertains us. It seems to me you can’t have it both ways.
To those who still care or want to take up the challenge, pick up a classic and prove the naysayers wrong. At the very least, your writing will benefit.
NOTE: This piece originally appeared in "The Writing Cooperative" on Medium 1/28/23
¹elevenfortyseven, “on the inability to create purpose.” The Pit. https://elevenfortyseven.substack.com/p/on-the-inability-to-create-purpose?utm_source=profile&utm_medium=reader2
²“The Greatest Books of All Time.” https://thegreatestbooks.org/
³Editors, The American Scholar, “Ten Best Sentences.” https://theamericanscholar.org/ten-best sentences/
⁴Mike Springer, “Ernest Hemingway Creates a List for a Young Writer, 1934,” https://www.openculture.com/2013/05/ernest_hemingways_reading_list_for_a_young_writer_1934.html
⁵Roosevelt Montás, “Why the Great Books are Still Great.” https://aeon.co/essays/why-the-great-books-still-speak-for-themselves-and-for-us
⁶Jed Rasula, What the Thunder Said: How ‘The Waste Land’ Made Poetry Modern. Princeton UP. (2022).
⁷Dan Piepenbring, “W.H.Auden’s Potent Syllabus, and Other News.” https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2015/01/29/w-h-audens-syllabus-and-other-news/