Friday, May 18, 2007

Why Read the Classics?

You know that funny feeling, when you're at a dinner party, and several people start up with the in-jokes? The kind of jokes that are uproariously funny, but only if you know the particular people, places, and events? Then someone takes a moment to try to set it all up for you, and by the time they're finished, it's sort of lost something. It's not really all that funny after all. Except that it is, and there are still a half-dozen folks doubled over and guffawing away to prove it. When we started homeschooling, we knew we wanted to use the Charlotte Mason method, which places primary texts first and foremost. Our children would be reading books, and lots of them, and those books would either come from (or eventually lead to) the corpus that makes up the Western canon. And quite frankly, my pride would not allow me to be surpassed by my own children. If they were going to eventually read some of these books, then so was I. The television had recently been banished from the house anyway, so I had time. I found a reading guide with a list, and basically dove right in. I wanted to read the classics because I knew that they would, and I wanted to be able to at least converse about them, if not take an active role in teaching them. We had quite a few of these books already in the house, so these were the low-hanging fruit. The next stop was our local library, followed by the local used book stores and thrift shops, then the used-booksellers on Amazon and finally, volumes purchased new. This necessarily made my approach sort of scattershot - I wasn't reading anything in chronological sequence, but eventually settled into a pattern whereby I was reading antiquity, with occasional thematic side trips. When I read Chapman's translation of The Odyssey, I went and read Keats' poem of the same name, then meandered through the rest of my old Norton anthology, reacquainting myself with the Romantics. The fact is that these works are classics for a reason. Everyone who's come along since has gone back to the same well. They've borrowed from the classics, re-wrought them for their own time, or reacted angrily against them. They've re-cast the heroes in their own time, added contemporary touches and discovered new things about the stories (and themselves) in the process. The character of Achilles stands untouched in the Iliad, but each generation's understanding of him changes somewhat as they bring to bear their own cultural milieu. Read the classics because they're classics. You can approach these works alone and separate, and be changed (however slightly) forever, or you can come to them as parts of a greater whole: the allusions, symbols, metaphors, back-stories, and flat-out thefts will all start to come alive. Suddenly in the middle of a paragraph, you think hey, I know where he got that from. That's from such-and-such. Incidentally, this awareness doesn't just stop at the written word: it spreads, like a fragrance, into all of the arts, philosophy, theology and all of the other nooks and crannies of Western civilization. It ought to go without saying, but Scriptural literacy is an absolute must-have, whether you're a believer, as I am, or not, and especially if you're not. Intellectual honesty demands nothing less. Read the classics because they're the foundation of, well, pretty much everything that's come along since then. Additionally, the best way to understand a particular writer may not necessarily be from his or her body of work. You're only getting half of the story, rather like studying the sky by watching its reflection in a pond. The real way to understand writers is to read what they themselves read, to walk along some of the same country lanes or rocky shorelines and see the dim inspirations for the things we later come to love. There's a throwaway bit in Beowulf that absolutely must have provided Tolkien with some ideas about Bilbo and Smaug. I read it, then re-read it several times and laughed out loud. I get it. Read the classics to be In On It. These are not the same stories that we ploughed through in high school or college. They are all the richer because we are all the older and maybe a little more lined since then. And honestly, most of them are darn good stories, easily and far surpassing most of what passes for fiction these days. I'm pretty jaded when it comes to contemporary movies - there only seem to be a half-dozen plots currently in use, and it's no mean feat to predict the outcome within a few minutes of a movie, and certainly by the halfway point. But I'll admit to being caught flat-footed many times, not seeing the ending coming. Read them to be raised up out of the detritus of modern entertainment. You can't understand the present without a thorough understanding of what's come before, a fairly self-evident reason for studying history. Why should literature be any different?

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