Why we should all read the classics

Sophie Macdonald 16 March 2021
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

If you are the kind of person who enjoys the escapism of reading as passive entertainment, or someone who resorts to books as a productive form of procrastination, there are worse choices than the classics. These remarkable snippets into the past can provide you with a profound sense of belonging, identifying with protagonists, and finding comfort in the fact that some of your thoughts seem to be universal. It’s also interesting to draw parallels between fiction and reality from the classics; wondering why facial-recognition cameras feel so spookily familiar after reading ‘1984’, or why Boris Johnson attempted the prorogation of parliament after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ so clearly warns against it? The classics can provide incredible resources for thought, as well as entertainment.

It’s also interesting to draw parallels between fiction and reality from the classics; wondering why facial-recognition cameras feel so spookily familiar after reading ‘1984’, or why Boris Johnson attempted the prorogation of parliament after ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ so clearly warns against it?

If you are one of those people who become a little bit too hooked on their book, a classic that you can (probably) finish in a day, such as Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ might be ideal. Hemingway’s heroic novel centres around a fisherman who participates in an epic three-day battle with a giant marlin. The ‘Old Man and the Sea’ is famously fascinated with the idea of a man proving his worth in the face of nature, the limits of age, as well as the ability of the human spirit to endure hardship when searching for success. This exploration of masculinity is still incredibly relevant today, with many having to overcome their own marlins as a result.  Some critics have even demanded it be read in a single sitting, and I would too.

Since everybody loves a bit of satire, I would next recommend Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Vile Bodies’. Set in England during the inter-war years, the novel explores the hollowness of the ‘Bright Young Things’, a hedonistic, group of people who indulge in debauchery. Presenting an overwhelming stream of characters, Waugh explores the significance of social constructs in influencing populations, as well as the vileness and hypocrisy of society.

The beauty and depth provided to readers by James Baldwin are incomparable. ‘The Fire Next Time’ contains two essays addressing racial tensions in America, issues which are poignantly still relevant today. Baldwin also examines the role of religion as both an oppressive and enabling force in inspiring rage, as well as the need to revolutionise the limited ways of thinking about race. In his view, people of all races must learn to love each other in order for society to improve, a view that still speaks volumes today.

If you’re looking for a challenge, Virginia Woolf will happily provide one. Describing the adventures of a poet who changes sex from man to woman, spanning from the Elizabethan court to Virginia Woolf’s present, 1928. Considered a fundamental feminist classic, ‘Orlando’ has been greatly admired for its feminist stance, as well as its considerations of transgenderism and gender fluidity. ‘Orlando’ was famously inspired by Woolf’s sexual and romantic relationship with Vita Sackville-West. Both were members of the Bloomsbury Group, which was notably known for its liberal views on sexuality, and ‘Orlando’ is still both an inspiration and success today. If you’re also interested in Woolf’s famously complicated stream-of-consciousness narratives, ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘The Waves’ are both beautiful demonstrations of her excellence.

I don’t think I could possibly be a feminist, teenage girl, without recommending Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Bell Jar’, according to popular stereotypes. Detailing the life of Ester Greenwood, a university student disillusioned with issues of identity, the future, mental health and societal norms, ‘The Bell Jar’ is a classical staple. Celebrated for its haunting honesty and self-deprecation, it has also been read as a critique of 1950s social politics. Exploring the paradoxical expectations imposed on women in relation to academia, femininity, sexuality and motherhood, Plath portrays Esther’s identity as heavily fragmented. Plath’s infamous metaphor detailing Esther’s life “branching out before [her] like the green fig tree” echoes every teenager’s contemplation about the future. Highlighting the significance of time, and having the consequences of indecision result in the figs wrinkling, growing black and “plopping” to the ground, this metaphor resonates with everyone’s uncertainties about the future, but emphasises that we should proceed one day at a time.

The classics have ways of presenting human beings as complex, contradictory and unusual. In their style, structure and voice, we are able to grasp not only different periods of literary history, but allowed an insight into the minds of different people. The classics are an invitation into the human mind, revealing to us the intricacies of human nature, and thought. They teach us what it is to be human.