In December, my short-lived little blog quietly took on a new name: Classic Books, Modern Wisdom. The name speaks not so much to a change of direction as a shift in intention.
For the last few years, I’ve found myself returning to classic books I read, often for school but also for myself. It began on a whim in 2012 with a twitter book club reading of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. It had been years since I’d read the novel in graduate school. I had forgotten how his words can make my heart feel so light that I half expect to take flight. I’d forgotten how startling it can be to encounter, in a 150-year-old novel from a world distinctly unlike my own, characters who seem to understand my struggles, longings, temptations, pleasures. I’d forgotten how much encouragement and inspiration for living I can find through these characters’ journeys.
Perhaps, in the course of constructing arguments and researching artifacts as a scholar-in-training, I’d lost track of why I had wanted to study literature. Or maybe I’d not, for a very long time, had the space to experience these worlds for no other reason than to take a journey through narrative and feel enlarged, frustrated, uplifted, challenged through the experience. Reading as a scholar-in-training had its own set of requirements and approaches. The reading that began with Great Expectations felt different. It felt rewarding in a new way (and, I’m sure, also limiting in its own way).
“Different” and “new” are far too abstract to tell you much. I’m finding more precise words as I gain a deeper understanding of the value I find in (re)reading these books, which I began exploring in the following:
Now about that shift in intention I mentioned in the first paragraph: I intend to read at least one classic title per month. I intend to explore what each gives me to think about how to live, and I intend to continue exploring and writing about it on this blog.
I will also continue reading contemporary books and writing about them here. I’ve found that conversations about the value of reading classics are enriched and deepened through comparison. For me, it’s not an either read classics/or read contemporary. I’m not interested in privileging one over the other or setting up binaries or defining what is literary art vs. what is not. I’m assuming books still in print and widely read are classics and exploring what I value in them that may be of interest to other readers. As for contemporary books, I’m interested in exploring how they help me think about the world I’m living in right now. I’m happy to leave the task of assessing their merit as art objects to future generations.
For the sake of clarity of terms: I’m defining “classic” as a book written before 1914/World War I. Drawing arbitrary lines is not something I’m especially comfortable with, but in this case, WWI is an acknowledged turning point in modern history. Because I’m interested in thinking about books whose narrators, events, and experiences are far removed from my own, focusing on pre-WWI feels appropriate. However, this may change as I go deeper into the project.
I would love to hear from you as well! What have you valued about reading classic books? Do you have any recommendations or suggestions for what I should tackle this year?