Why read the classics, anyway?

by Jaimie Leigh

Reading the classics in the 21st century is practically an act of rebellion.

After all, with the world literally at our fingertips—and endless playlists and to do lists competing for our attention—who wants to curl up with a book whose leather-bound form could sink the Titanic?

If you’ve ever wondered what the classics have to offer, you’re not alone. But I can think of a few reasons you might want to brave them anyway—and I’m willing to bet you’ll be glad you did.
But before we jump to the why, let’s tackle the what. What exactly is classic literature? What makes these books so special?
Literary scholars are quick to point out that there are as many definitions of “classic” as there are classics. That said, most tend to touch on at least one of the following:
Classics are books that have stood the test of time. Of the thousands of books published each year, most only reach a small audience. Bestsellers are the obvious exception, but even their glory (and readership) tends to be fleeting. Classics, on the other hand, are books we’re still reading long after they were published—books that have been passed down from generation to generation to land in your fortunate lap.
How do they pull off this reappearing act? Simple: The classics address universal themes (love, war, faith, family, friendship, good vs. evil) that make them eternally relevant. This is also the reason they continue to influence and inspire writers born long after their spines were first cracked open.
Last but not least, the classics are milestones of literary achievement worth visiting and revisiting across your lifetime. As Italo Calvino famously said, “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” Only books that demonstrate mastery of style, subject, character, plot, and theme are awarded “classic” status and all attendant bragging rights.
With this in mind, why should you devote any of your precious free time to an intellectual wrestling match with some dead literary genius?
Well, for starters, many classics offer a fascinating glimpse into another culture or era. Ever wanted to tour the world, or travel back in time? Classic literature lets you do both—all from the comfort of your living room.
If you’re anything like me, bare facts and figures go in one ear and out the other, never to be seen or heard from again. It’s amazing how much history I’ve learned and forgotten, then relearned and re-forgotten, over the years.
But great writing has a way of waltzing right off the page and into your heart. When a historical event features in a story I’m invested in, full of characters I care about, the distant past suddenly gets up close and personal.
The same goes for unfamiliar cultures and settings. I’ve never picked pockets in the streets of 19th-century London, but thanks to Charles Dickens, I might as well have. And who better to bring us face to face with New York high society at the turn of the century—and its unforgiving code of conduct—than Edith Wharton, who lived it?
So go ahead. Peek through that window. Cross that bridge. See what life is like on the other side. You might just stumble upon a whole new world—or you might find it isn’t that different from your own.
Which brings me to the next best reason to read the classics: They’re more relatable than you think.
Just because a literary character has never taken a selfie, or worn a pair of flip-flops, or snuck candy into a movie theater doesn’t mean you have nothing in common. Classic novels wouldn’t have stood their ground against time, geography, cultural differences, and YouTube if they didn’t tap into emotions and experiences most of us have had at one time or another.
Take The Great Gatsby, a.k.a. Jay Gatsby, a.k.a. a man who’ll stop at nothing—not husbands, not class differences, and certainly not minor details like the law—to get the girl of his dreams. We all know what it’s like to want something that badly, even if we know better than to follow his example. And who hasn’t indulged in a revenge fantasy worthy of the Count of Monte Cristo, who—after being arrested for a crime he didn’t commit—escapes from prison, sails in search of buried treasure, and then uses it to destroy the lives of those who wronged him?
The characters who populate these stories reflect the best and worst of us: love and greed, hope and spite, ambition and folly. They may be fictional, but they’re just as human as we are.
Of course, that isn’t the only reason they might seem familiar. In the age of reboots, we’re all too aware that original stories are few and far between. But what if I told you the classics are at the root of most of our modern entertainment?
Most fantasy buffs know that Game of Thrones was heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings—but it might surprise them to learn how much Tolkien borrowed from the Old English poem Beowulf. And the “hero’s journey” narrative found in Star Wars, Legally Blonde, The Wizard of Oz, and The Hunger Games? It all started with The Odyssey, the epic poem following the adventures of Odysseus on his 10-year journey home from the Trojan War.
The list goes on: We wouldn’t have Ray Bradbury without H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, the dual fathers of science fiction, and we wouldn’t have Stephen King without Edgar Allan Poe, master of horror and all things macabre. Reading the classics, in other words, means getting to the heart of the stories we love most.
This isn’t to say they’re going to be a non-stop frolic. For every Peter Pan or Swiss Family Robinson, there’s a Moby-Dick or a Heart of Darkness ready to test you to your limits.
Some classics, like Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, will push you right out of your comfort zone. Gradually learning how Oedipus killed his own father and married his mother, accidentally fulfilling a decades-old prophecy, is a trainwreck of the can’t-look-away variety.
And there’s nothing quite like Frankenstein to help you put your problems in perspective. Most of us spend our lives in search of love and acceptance, but few of us do it as a reanimated collection of dead body parts.
There are even classics that will teach you critical thinking skills. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn follows Huck’s journey to overcome the prejudices of his community and upbringing. Achilles, the greatest warrior in Homer’s Iliad, has to choose between dying a hero’s death—short, but wreathed in glory—and living a long life in obscurity. And let’s not forget Les Misérables, which counters all our assumptions about living in poverty.
But we both know you like a challenge, and now’s your chance to prove it. Best case scenario? You conquer new literary territory and discover a better, wiser version of yourself. Worst case scenario? You toughen up your reading skills for next time.
If, by chance, you’re still wondering whether classic lit is for you, consider their not-so-secret weapon: The classics span every major literary genre, meaning there’s something for everyone.
Love romance? Check out Jane Austen for ballrooms and witty banter, or Charlotte Brontë for Gothic mansions and kindred spirits. A fan of mystery? Sherlock Holmes would be more than happy to boggle your mind. Horror junkies should take a stab at Dracula or The Turn of the Screw. And if you’re too cool for labels, there’s always The Metamorphosis, Franz Kafka’s puzzling novella about a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning in the body of a giant insect.
All this to say that no matter which classic you read, somebody somewhere has loved it and learned from it and carried it with them for a lifetime. And they’re only going to keep giving us new reasons to grow. Contrary to popular belief, the classics aren’t set in stone: They’re more like a centuries-long group project led by literary scholars, critics, publishers, and—yes—readers like you. Every generation has a chance to look back and decide which stories, authors, views, and perspectives are worth passing the torch of human tradition on to—or lighting it anew.
So go on. You’ve made it this far, haven’t you? You’ve picked up Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Seven Years Concealed. You’ve chosen your path forward.
And that, as any rebel knows, is half the battle won.