Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1

Classic literature, like fantasy, separates us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct our arguments and defenses.Years ago, when I was trying to shape my dissertation study, I had the “brilliant” idea to study how reading changes us. I’d been a reader for as long as I could remember. I recognized that the books I’d read throughout my life, in school and out, have shaped the way I think and act in the world. I wanted to understand how that happens, how it works.

My dissertation chair never came right out and said, “That’s a dreadful dissertation topic.” An exceedingly gentle and wise man, the kind of man about whom people are likely to say, “they don’t make them like him anymore,” he wanted to see me finish my dissertation sometime before the universe’s inevitable flame-out. He asked me questions. He showed me what such a study might entail. He invoked the vaguely Orwellian sounding Human Subjects Committee.

Somehow, by the end of our extended pre-proposal discussions, he delicately helped me construct an infinitely more manageable – and quantifiable – study: I looked at how writing handbooks advise student writers to incorporate texts alongside how “exemplary” student writers actually incorporate them. I worked with published texts and numbers. I enjoyed researching and writing my dissertation immensely … even if it was the kind of study that exactly seven people on Earth are likely to read (because they had to): The three members of my dissertation committee, my two outside readers (who probably skimmed it), my writing partner, and me.

Conducting my study helped me think about the ways we bring other writers into our work at the language level. It was fascinating and instructive. I’m grateful for the years I spent working on it. Still, my larger question has lingered. Earlier this year, I articulated some of the related questions circling around that larger one:

  • Why did I pick up these books in the first place?
  • What made me receptive to the experiences within them?
  • What was I preoccupied with at that point in my life, and why?
  • What have these books contributed to how I experience and interact with the world?
  • How do these books become pieces of a larger puzzle that explains how I (have) evolve(d) over time?
  • Can I even quantify this process?
  • Why do I want to?

The last two might be the easiest to answer. I’m sure I can’t quantify it, and I want to try anyway because understanding how influence works feels crucial. We’re influenced every day, in a billion teeny ways.

The other five questions are … more challenging. I don’t know if they’ll get me closer to understanding what I want to understand. But I look forward to exploring them.

As a way to draw boundaries around my inquiry, I plan to start with my experience of classic literature. By classic, I’m referring to books written outside of my time. Classics, like fantasy literature, separate us from the familiar trappings and references around which we construct the arguments and defenses that may, over time, cloud our vision.

Classic literature is a genre I’ve read for as long as I can remember – beginning with A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett in elementary school and continuing today with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, which I’m currently rereading. It’s a genre I’ve read in school and out, for pleasure and to pass exams and write papers. It’s a genre I continue to return to and that I think about often.

At the moment, I can think of seven things reading classic literature has inspired me to think about, and I plan to spend the next seven weeks exploring each further:

  • Reading classic literature helps me think in a new way about authors, art, and the purpose of criticism.
  • Reading classic literature gives me perspective about the human condition.
  • Reading classic literature liberates me from the myth of progress when it comes to human nature.
  • Reading classic literature shows me how resilient humans are.
  • Reading classic literature gives me an intense feeling of connection to human experience.
  • Reading classic literature takes me out of my language comfort zone.
  • Reading classic literature outside of school allows me to reclaim these books as mine.

I would love to hear your ideas, suggestions, and experiences with classic literature!

2 Replies to “Modern Wisdom from Classic Literature, Part 1”

  1. Such interesting musings.

    I guess for me, I started picking up classical literature as a young reader because of the covers – girls in pretty, bygone-era dresses have always had a special place in my heart. I’m not joking; Before I really knew anything about them, I picked out “Anne of Green Gables” and my all-time favorite book “A Little Princess” (I’m so glad we’re both fans) purely based on their beautiful covers. As I got a little older, I started reading classics because I’d find references to them in other books, or TV shows or movies or art, and wanted to see what the deal was. I was rarely disappointed. And I remember being so thrilled by this world that was between reality and reading, this world of allusions and how they often led to each other, in this endless chain of discovery.

    I don’t know exactly how literature has changed me in a book-by-book way (although there are some books that have shaken me to the core, comforted or inspired me), but I was actually thinking about this the other day, randomly: I think that because of the books I’ve read, and continue to read, I’ve learned to be more accepting of others, and to understand that, as Sara Crewe said, “Everyone is a story.”

    In any case, thanks for continuing to take us on your reading journey.

    PS Also, for what it’s worth, I would totally read your dissertation -that sounds really interesting, especially to those of us who are teachers of some kind and/or who have helped people with their writing.

    1. Haha, I used to joke that I should sell it as a cure-all for insomnia. But really, I found the topic intriguing.

      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. It’s so interesting that you were thinking about this recently too and that Sara Crewe’s words came to you. It strikes me as a perfect intersection of what I did in my dissertation and the larger question that interests me about influence, which you address in your first paragraph. It’s that labyrinth of references, allusions, and quotes that fascinates me along with the way we internalize certain narratives and ideas. They become a part of us!

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