Not infrequently, in the middle of a harried day in clinic or after an onerous day slinging emails on the computer, I find myself—in my mind’s eye—nestled in a dimly lit room, swallowed in an oversized chair, reading a classic work of literature. It may be a doorstop novel, lofty poetry, or a series of penetrating essays. No matter. Only one thing is certain: it is old.
Who might I be reading? It may be William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexandre Dumas, Dante Alighieri, or the Greek Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides. Now, that doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy writers from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am entranced by G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Georges Bernanos, T.S. Eliot, and P.G. Wodehouse.
But every so often, I hear the criticism that I don’t read enough “modern” writers. Modern writers, it is argued, speak acutely to our contemporary culture, our current plight, and our complicated, cutting edge concerns. Surely, it is sniffed, no one has contended with what we contend with. Perhaps I would be a better person if I read A Gentleman in Moscow, Where the Crawdads Sing, or A Game of Thrones series. Perhaps. But here is why I still prefer the classics.
First, classics transcend time, language, and culture. And they do so for one primary reason: they have something enduring to say about the universals of human nature. They speak of tragedy: How our heart can break. The brokenness of families. Man’s inhumanity to man. The loss of faith. How war obliterates and disease consumes. The indignity of poverty and the corrosion of greed. The self-immolating fires of lust and envy. But the classics also speak of hope: The endurance of love. The need for heroes. Unexpected graces. Unanticipated comebacks. Kindness amid hatred. The balm of forgiveness and the gentleness of charity. Loyal friendship and ennobling faithfulness. Classics speak with wit and wisdom, subtlety and shouting, about the fundamental vicissitudes of being human. And that story never grows old.
Second, classics elevate. To read a classic is to be anything but a snob; it is to be humbled. Classics push us to grapple with the precision of language, the value of long-forgotten mores, and the nuance of delicate social and personal circumstance. They make us remember the enduring dignity of the individual cast in rough and unforgiving circumstances. While classics remind us of our humble origins and our messy existence, they open us to a hope for a better way. They offer an antidote to certain factions of modern literature that find themselves trapped in a tired narcissism and mewling self-pity.
Third, classics are ever-fresh. Charles Peguy once said, “Homer is original this morning, and nothing is perhaps so old as today’s newspaper.” That which is enduring, endures. That which is ephemeral, fades like the grass. Reading a classic once allows you to understand what happened. But reading a classic again and again helps you better understand just what it means. With this understanding comes growth and maturity. Like looking in the mirror at different stages of life, you recognize the paradox that as you change, you become curiously more familiar. When people discount classic literature because of its age, we must recognize what C.S. Lewis dubbed “chronological snobbery,” which is “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.” Even better, we should agree when G.K. Chesterton said, “My attitude toward progress has passed from antagonism to boredom. I have long ceased to argue with people who prefer Thursday to Wednesday because it is Thursday.”
Finally, classics are a joy to read. The soothing tones of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, the puckish wit of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and the heartbreaking tragedy of King Lear carrying the body of his dead child, Coredelia, are just a sampling of the infinite lives and stories in which we find ourselves gloriously immersed. To encounter them is to foster a new friendship. To relish them is to find oneself, yet again, in love.
Reading, to be sure, is wonderful. But tonight, find yourself sinking deep into that oversized chair, warming your feet by the crackling fire, and turning the pages of a timeless classic. You won’t be disappointed.
This is excerpted from a larger essay by Tod Worner, published in the third issue of Evangelization & Culture, the Journal of the Word on Fire Institute. To enjoy more essays like this one, please join the Word on Fire Institute at wordonfire.institute.