Why read classic books?

Or: in defense of the middle ground

This is my first attempt to “think out loud” about the question I get most often: why bother reading the Classics? This is still very much a work in progress: I think people don’t consider and adapt their own beliefs often enough (see also: mental liquidity). I consider my opinions here to be very much loosely held: I’m just trying to figure out my own answer here. I’m expecting to come back to this question so much, in fact, that I’ve created a “rationales” category on this blog.

There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Chesterton’s Fence

Should we read the classics? From my outsider’s perspective on the literature scene, this seems to be The Question. Arguments are lobbed over the top by one side or the other, and literary critics dutifully place themselves into the Camp A or Camp B. Camp A maintains the great works of literature — Homer, Plato, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Austen, and the like — are difficult, but rewarding and ultimately necessary. They are connected, somehow, to what it means to be human. Camp B maintains that you can give the whole lot a miss, and just read what tickles your fancy. I suspect that the truest answer to The Question, as it so often is, lies somewhere in the middle ground.

I suggest that there’s a path between these two camps, acknowledging the best arguments of both sides while cheerfully pitching your tent in Camp C. Read what you enjoy, and take pleasure in the act of reading in and of itself, not for any particular economic or political benefit.

I bumped up against this question when I started a solo “Great Books Project.” I decided to read the Classics in the middle of a global pandemic, while my social feeds were full of sourdough starters, at-home abs, and plant parenthood. My traditional education ended with a solidly vocational major: journalism at New York University, where I spent most of my waking hours at the offices of the student newspaper. I’d always wanted to supplement it with something more in line with a traditional liberal arts education. What better time than a global pandemic? And so I got to work: a syllabus from St. John’s, split into five years and covering 125 books. 

By the standards of Classics departments around the world, I’m doing this all wrong. I don’t know a lick of ancient Greek or Latin, and I have no access to Socratic-style seminars where I can discuss the great ideas that these books were said to contain. (I’ve since started to host my own on Zoom, but the fact that several dozen people signed up for a 15-month “great books” discussion project is a topic for another post.) I write no papers and receive no grades.

But by the standards of “well, do you enjoy doing this?” I’m giving myself top marks. Odysseus’ shenanigans in The Odyssey are as cinematic as any movie. Don Quixote is simultaneously comedy and tragedy — like the highest pieces of art, you aren’t entirely sure how you’re meant to feel after reading it. As a way of spending my time, reading the Classics is one that gives immense enjoyment, and that’s what the inhabitants of both Camp A and Camp B miss.

It’s easy now to say — that’s all very well, Tommy, you should read the Classics. This has, by and large, been the response when I tell people that I’m taking the next five years to read around 125 classic books: good luck, have fun, but better you than me. But, watching the debates on the future of the Classics, I feel compelled to try and steer the conversation closer to the middle of the road.

Camp A, in their rush to put certain books on lofty pedestals, reduce reading to something akin to eating your vegetables. The success of Harry Potter or the latest Stephen King are evidence, they maintain, of a society backsliding, satisfied with “inferior texts.” The inhabitants of Camp A take an austere, monastic pride in suffering through these old tomes. They’re bracing! They’re edifying! They are, but they’re also dull and difficult in places.

And what are we to make of the fact that the lofty ideals these books uphold aren’t nearly as progressive as we see ourselves today? Athenian democracy was less participatory than America’s today; Agnes Callard, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, details the many shortcomings of Aristotle’s beliefs, including that he believed that women lacked the necessary faculty for serious decision-making; Homer’s epics show the heroes as barbaric and capricious — are we to emulate Achilles, or Odysseus in the 21st century?

There is a tremendous amount of value in being able to draw the lines between the ideas of antiquity and the conversations of today. The founding fathers and first few presidents were heavily influenced by classical antiquity — down to the fact, as Thomas Ricks has noted, that our nation’s leaders, the Senate, in the Capitol, in a reference to ancient Rome and the time of Caesar. We ought to understand that influence and, yes, draw a line through it at other times. We can —we have to!— read and appreciate things without giving them our full-throated, unconditional support.

Camp B, for their part, go too far with doing away with the idea of Classic literature entirely. Most of the “big conversations” we have today, debates about the nature of justice, politics, national character, and a good society, all have their beginnings in these books. Indeed, the Classics are some of the oldest stories and ideas that we have.

I think it’s important to read the Classics as a sort of hedge against Chesterton’s Fence, which I quoted at the beginning of this piece. I’m not sure what happens when we don’t read the great books, when Classics departments are perennially underfunded, understaffed, and under-attended. I suspect that the result isn’t pretty.

But if we become too set in our beliefs, if we think that we should read the Classics exclusively, or that we need not bother at all, then we lose something. These are the books that have much to teach us on philosophy, science, and living a good life. Reading them — difficult as they are, in both content and style — allows you to place yourself in the midst of these conversations.

Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, spent a lifetime attempting to balance ancient Jewish law with the demands and responsibilities of modern life. Jewish law, he thought, should get “a vote, but not a veto.” We should take a similar approach with the great books. Taken together, they are simultaneously a history of humanity and signposts we can use to guide the future. We shouldn’t feel bound to them, but neither should we feel free to abandon them.


Thanks to Denis Collison, Gad Allon, Felipe Echandi, Maria Luisa Martinez, and Trevor McKendrick for reading drafts of this. Thanks also to Ari Lamm for the advice, and for interviewing me about some of these thoughts on Good Faith Effort.

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2 Responses to Why read classic books?

  1. Anthony Romeo says:

    I’ve found that, in addition to reading classics, it’s interesting to get an good injection of “non-classics” as well. One of my favorite reading pastimes is reading “books from the Random page on Project Gutenberg with intriguing titles.” There’s a plethora of books from the past 200 years about many subjects.

    For example, I recall gaining interesting insights on the political tenor of 2020 after reading selections from Confederate writers — being left with a haunting sense of similarity between the rhetorical devices used by some of their most aggressive sophists with those of today. Another was a text from 100 years ago criticizing an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe.

    • Marek T says:

      @Anthony,

      Can you share the text form 100 years ago about the increas in anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe? I’d love to read it.

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