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Your Story and Mine: Why Everyone Should Read Classic Literature

January 15, 2020


A few days ago I finished my annual participation in a week-long series of lectures, Becoming a Doctor, to students at the University of Minnesota Medical School. The intent of the week is to draw third and fourth year students together from various rotations at disparate locations and allow them to reconnect with one another while reflecting on the past and planning for the future. It is an earnest effort to reclaim the sense of vocation for hyper-efficient, overtired students who teeter on the edge of burnout.

“Why Literature Matters to the Practice of Medicine” is my humble contribution to the week’s conversation. Let me start by saying that it is countercultural to suggest that the modern student should earnestly consider reading Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, and Dante (among many others). First, they are overwhelmed by work, barely finding time to read their assignments on the clinical issues of the day. How can they focus on Hamlet when they are struggling to understand heart failure? Second, the apparent narrative in most college settings is disdainful of classics. Classics, if explored at all, are often taught poorly with a wearying deconstruction and an unforgiving political eye. Modern fiction, students seem to be told, are rinsed free of the bias of a less enlightened past. G.K. Chesterton once heard these arguments and impishly sighed, “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.”

But let me offer this: The classics are not “classic” because they have remarkable, multi-generational marketing agents. Classics remain because they say something enduring about us. Isn’t it curious that in spite of the differences in culture, language, style, or era, great literature is transcendent? Even today, novels, short stories, and poems written by long-dead men and women still keenly expound on the deepest human truths. Dostoevsky, in spite of his brooding Russian demeanor, brilliantly described human tendencies that we see vividly every day. Shakespeare’s language may be challenging, but at times the shortcomings of his characters are precisely my shortcomings. Jane Austen’s stories may derive from a pre-Victorian culture, but the wit of Elizabeth Bennet exceeds that of the most celebrated modern late-night comedian. Over one hundred years ago, French poet Charles Péguy agreed in observing, “Homer is new this morning, and perhaps nothing is as old as today’s newspaper.”

Take a moment and consider, in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the dashing Alexei Vronsky, the lover of the married Anna Karenina, as he encounters Anna’s young son. It is the essence of hidden shame:

The child’s presence always and infallibly called up in Vronsky that strange feeling of inexplicable loathing which he had experienced of late. This child’s presence called up both in Vronsky and in Anna a feeling akin to the feeling of a sailor who sees by the compass that the direction in which he is swiftly moving is far from the right one, but that to arrest his motion is not in his power, that every instant is carrying him further and further away, and that to admit to himself his deviation from the right direction is the same as admitting his certain ruin.

This child, with his innocent outlook upon life, was the compass that showed them the point to which they had departed from what they knew but did not want to know.

Or experience the anxiety of Elinor Dashwood in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as she suffers by the sickbed of her beloved younger sister Marianne. “Is death to come swiftly? How will I go on?” she seems to ask:

It was a night of almost equal suffering to both. Hour after hour passed away in sleepless pain and delirium on Marianne’s side, and in the most cruel anxiety on Elinor’s, before Mr. Harris [the apothecary] appeared. Her apprehensions once raised, paid by their excess for all her former security . . . it gave a pang to the heart of poor Elinor, who, reproaching herself for having trifled with so many days of illness, and wretched for some immediate relief, fancied that all relief might soon be in vain, that every thing had been delayed too long, and pictured herself her suffering mother arriving too late to see this darling child, or to see her rational.

Feel yourself buried under the weight of despair as Shakespeare’s King Richard II finds himself barren and at the mercy of the angry Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford:

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke’s,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d;
All murder’d: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court . . .

And as the Spirit pointed its deathly hand at the lonely gravestone, endure the blackest fear and the harrowing graveside conversion of Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol:

The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”
The finger still was there.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope!”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”

Consider your first crush and your final marriage vows and see if your deepest feelings are echoed in the softest lines of Robert Burns’ A Red, Red Rose:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June:
O my Luve’s like the melodie,
That’s sweetly play’d in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun;
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare-thee-weel, my only Luve!
And fare-thee-weel, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ ’twere ten thousand mile!

And at last, consider the supreme bliss in Dante’s heart as he beheld the angel-rimmed Queen of Heaven:

And at
That middle point, I saw, with outspread wings,
A thousand angels—no, far more than that—
In festival, each, in specific things
To do, and in its brightness, quite unique.
And smiling on their sports and songs, there reigned
A beauty, joy to all. If I could speak

As I imagine, yet I’d be constrained
To silence on the subject of the least
Suggestion of her splendour. Bernard saw
My eyes on her from whom he never ceased
To draw warmth, and he turned to her once more
His own eye, with a love that made the thrill
Of my first sight of her more thrilling still.

There is nothing outdated or irrelevant about classic literature because there is nothing outdated about joy and despair, love and shame, anxiety and fear. It is the story of humanity that deserves to be well told, and well read. Classic literature endures because, when honest, it embodies who we are: dignified folks who have lost their way and are trying to find their way home. It’s your story and mine.

Now, that’s a story worth reading.