Why Read the Classics?

It is important for us to read the classics!

“Why?” you ask. “Why should I read the classics? Isn’t reading about pleasure, about what I enjoy? I enjoy Harry Potter so much more than The Brothers Karamazov. I move so much more quickly through Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler than I do W. Somerset Maugham, Ernest Hemingway.”

It’s a fair question. Isn’t reading about enjoyment as much as it is about personal growth? Why would you watch Gone with the Wind when you can instead gaze vapidly at the Kardashians, Doritos bowl half empty and perched precariously on your stomach? Why would you read the Bible when you can instead read The Secret or Chicken Soup for the Soul? Why go to the gym for hours, sweat pouring down your bright-red face, when you can do Seven Minute Abs (quick, before Kardashian comes on again).

So why after all read the classics? Here I defer to Italo Calvino, “The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory, camouflaging themselves as the collective or individual unconscious.”

I recently finished the autobiography of Maajid Nawaz. In prison for jihadist recruiting in totalitarian Egypt, Maajid read the classics. “Reading classic English literature did for me what studying Islamic theology couldn’t; it forced my mind to grapple with moral dilemmas. (…) (In) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy I couldn’t shake the moral paradox that Gollum-Smeagol came to embody (…) an evil character had thus inadvertently achieved the good that the story’s hero failed at… Lord of the Flies served as a stark warning about the tyranny that could arise from the most innocent of souls…”


I have been reading August 1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. This book has shown me the inner turmoil of an inferior nation at war against (and which finally defeats) a superior foe. It is a complicated book to read, and I’ll be honest in that I haven’t read all of it, jumping around quite a bit; but it is important to remember the great wars of our past and the people who died in them – and what it means to confront a great evil.

Back to Calvino: “A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise…”

A note here, for the first time Solzhenitsyn reader, please don’t read 1914. It is an extraordinarily tough read, and probably would not have ever been published if it had not been from the pen of one of the greats. Start with “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”. An important book, easy to read and reminding everybody what it was like to live a day in the Gulag. Especially for those Millenials who would like to take us all there.


About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
This entry was posted in Book Review, Literature, philosophy, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why Read the Classics?

  1. Pingback: Why read the classics? | MICHAEL BLACKBURN

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s