I realized many years ago that there are way too many books. One can literally spend a lifetime reading and barely scratch the surface. With so many to choose from, where do we start? And perhaps more importantly, where do we go? I knew I had to come up with some kind of plan or I’d risk wandering aimlessly in the bog of entertaining yet shallow reading.
Historically, a well-rounded, liberal-arts education consisted in large part of reading the classics. These are books that have stood the test of time and proven themselves worthy of being read over and over by successive generations. They are generally books that we hear the titles of, know they supposedly contain intellectually-formative content, but nevertheless end up sitting on our shelves gathering the dust of good-intentions.
The classics are classic because they were written by people who had worthwhile ideas to communicate and perhaps more importantly, they were able to communicate them. However, reading of this nature can be a difficult task for the modern reader who is accustomed to the light perusal of news articles, web pages, blogs (whoops!), and maybe occasionally picking up a book that is interesting but doesn’t add anything substantial to one’s stock of useful knowledge. I’ve wasted a lot of time with reading of this type.
The thing about the classics—be it fiction or non-fiction, science or philosophy, history or mathematics—is that the reader doesn’t have to agree with the authors in order to appreciate them. He only needs to be able to follow the author’s train of thought. The benefit lies in the journey. The destination is always clearer thinking. So in this sense, we don’t ever “arrive.” But we can always be moving forward. It is a life-long process.
The classics have never been as widely available to the greatest number of people as they are in this time of history. Conversely, they’ve probably never been so little read. For those of us who’ve tried, it quickly becomes apparent that this kind of reading takes effort, more effort than we are accustomed to giving in our reading.
But as is the case with everything worth obtaining in life, intellectual integrity is not an effortless achievement. And, practice makes perfect. In other words, the only way one learns to read the best books is to buckle down and start reading them. There are no shortcuts. It takes time and energy and perseverance. It takes discipline, especially with so many distractions that clamor for our attention.
I didn’t really begin pursuing the classics (besides those which I had to read in school) until about ten years ago. Needless to say, I still have a long way to go. But it’s never too late to get into the game. In fact, I’m realizing more and more that age and experience offers deeper and richer understanding of the ideas contained in them. This is especially evident when I go back and reread a book after a few years. That is the beauty of a good book. It always offers something new and relevant.
There are many lists available on the internet of “classic” books. I prefer Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren’s list. Theirs covers a full range of literature, both fiction and nonfiction, specifically in regards to the historical development of Western thought. I’ve found this list serves as a useful guide and as a way to gauge my progress.
Plus, thanks to e-readers, many of the classics are available electronically—and many of these for free. This is especially helpful for someone like myself who lives in a country where good books are hard to obtain or too bulky to transport to a remote location.
I generally read across many genres. It doesn’t have to be a “classic” for me to pick it up. Yet, I do try to always be working through a book that challenges me to understand its contents because I know it has proved itself to be a book worthy of understanding. So if I have a reading plan, it’s to keep reading the classics. Can you really go wrong doing so?