Monday, June 24, 2013

Why Read the Classics?

by Rachel Carey

Robinson Crusoe and Shakespeare and Beowulf … cue the groans. Getting high school students excited to read the Classics has to be one of the biggest problems facing teachers today. As students, it’s easy to forget — or just ignore — the fact that the Classics actually are important — because, well, often times we feel that these works don’t have anything to do with our lives. But I am here to admit that they do, of course, have much to do with our lives (especially as informed readers) — here’s how:

1. The Classics = The Originals
Most of today’s popular literature deals with the use of themes, devices, and genres that were created by one of the medieval genius authors whose works we all love … or love to hate. Thus, these works should be read and respected for the roads they helped pave for modern literature. Think about where we would be right now if Daniel Defoe never wrote the first realistic fiction novel, Robinson Crusoe, in 1719 or how the modern love story would look if Romeo and Juliet had never graced the Elizabethan stage.

2. The Allusions!
In the same vein as my point above, a lot of really popular pieces of modern literature — even films (think the modern Taming of the Shrew adaptation, 10 Things I Hate About You) — allude back to Classics. In order to fully understand the meaning of these modern pieces, the Classics also need to be understood (and read). Even the title of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is taken from Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world! That has such people in’t!” (Act V, Scene 1), proving that the ideas first seen in classic literature are still viable today.

3. Universal Truths Don’t Have a Historical Time Limit
Art and literature have always been mediums through which humanity expresses their deepest desires and needs. And, while a lot of time has passed since the Classics have been written, the nature of humanity has not really changed much. In fact, connecting with these past characters helps ground the modern reader — recognizing that, while these characters lead lives vastly different from what we’re used to, their struggles come from an inner self that is not much different from their modern counterpart.

A lot has changed, but a lot has also stayed the same, and humanity’s nature — as seen through the character and conflict types we create — is pretty constant. It doesn’t matter whether we are looking at Hamlet or Harry Potter — both characters react to the death of one or both of their parents in very human, very relatable ways, and the works were published nearly 400 years apart.

These are just a few of many reasons why the Classics are so important. Perhaps Italo Calvino voiced the need to read Classics best in his book entitled “Why Read the Classics?” when he said: “A Classic does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before. In a Classic, we sometimes discover something we have always known (or thought we knew), but without knowing that this author said it first, or at least is associated with it in a special way. And this, too, is a surprise that gives such pleasure, such as we always gain from the discovery of an origin, a relationship, an affinity.” He also said that “a Classic is a term for a book that represents the whole universe,” and I agree.

Thanks for reading!

Rachel Carey is a summer intern at Prestwick House. She is also a senior at the University of Delaware, where she studies English with a concentration in Creative Writing. During the school year, she is an active editor and writer for Caesura and The Main Street Journal, both of which are prominent literary magazines on campus, as well as Vice President of The Blue Pen Society writing club.

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