10 reasons you should read the classics

Reading works like ‘1984,’ ‘Gone With the Wind’ and ‘Brave New World’ can boost your vocabulary, improve your social skills, help you understand history and more.

There are many reasons to read the classics other than “because someone said so.”

Here are 10:

1. You’ll increase your vocabulary.

Whether you want to impress your in-laws or deliver more effective presentations at work, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with words that reflect your intelligence.

Reading the Greek and Latin classics in particular will develop your personal word bank, because many English words have roots in these languages. English has a habit of widespread borrowing, but more than 60 percent of English words come from Greek and Latin.

2. You’ll improve your social skills.

A 2013 study showed that reading the classics—in contrast with commercial fiction and even non-fiction—leads to better social perception and emotional intelligence. Character-driven novels can even strengthen your personal ethics. (Just make sure you’re clear on the distinction between the good and bad guys.)

3. You’ll be reading something of value.

The classics, with their typically universal themes, have stood the test of time. Their characters, experiences, emotions and perspectives are still relevant today.

Often, a classic is an iconic work within the literary movement or period in which it was written. Classics are also usually somewhat challenging, so you’ll be proud to tackle them. You won’t need to hide behind the anonymity of your e-reader in cafes or on public transportation.

Will you like all the classics? Probably not. But they span every major literary genre, from fantasy (“Lord of the Rings”) to science fiction (“Brave New World”) to romance (“Sense and Sensibility”) and even children’s (“Charlotte’s Web”), so you’re bound to find something appealing.

4. Literary references won’t go over your head.

You’ll be a walking encyclopedia of major cultural references. Media, entertainment and everyday social allusions to concepts and characters such as Big Brother (“1984”), Frankenstein’s monster (“Frankenstein”), Oedipus (“Oedipus the King”) and existentialism (“The Stranger,” among others) abound.

In addition, hundreds of popular words and expressions come from the works of Shakespeare.

5. You can reward yourself with the film when you finish reading.

Almost every classic has been made (and remade and remade) into a movie, from “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “Gone With the Wind” to “On the Road” to “The Great Gatsby.”

Some film versions earned excellent reviews, but you’ll be informed enough to say whether the book was better. (It probably was.)

Still, it’s intriguing to see these unfailingly rich and penetrating stories come to life on the big screen.

6. The classics provide an opportunity to understand history and culture.

In his 1970 Nobel lecture in Literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said:

“The only substitute for an experience we ourselves have never lived through is art, literature. They possess a wonderful ability: beyond distinctions of language, custom, social structure, they can convey the life experience of one whole nation to another … Literature conveys irrefutable condensed experience … from generation to generation. Thus it becomes the living memory of the nation.”

Great works of literature mark every period of modern history and offer a more personal, accessible perspective on events and philosophies than most textbooks. Even literary classics that had little initial success and books that have been routinely banned by conservative communities went on to have “a profound effect on American life,” according to the Library of Congress. The same goes, of course, for classics in other countries and languages.

7. The classics will enrich you in ways you didn’t expect.

Claire Needell Hollander, a middle school English teacher in Manhattan, discovered her most disadvantaged students connected best with tales of hardship, loss and the tyranny of fate found so often in classic novels.

Reading the classics can even be a form of therapy. A Liverpool University study showed that poetic language in particular stimulates the part of the brain linked to autobiographical memory and emotion. This type of brain activity leads readers to reflect on their experiences as they read.

As Professor Arnold Weinstein thoughtfully describes:

“Classic novels are restless creatures, trying out new forms of expression, challenging our views on how a culture might be understood and how a life might be packaged. What is the shape of experience? How would you represent your own? These books help us toward a deeper understanding of our own estate.”

8. The classics challenge the brain—in a good way.

Shakespeare’s use of language stretches the brain, and researchers believe a thorough reading of Jane Austen is associated with a level of cognitive complexity beyond that needed to solve a difficult math problem.

In the era of reality TV and Buzzfeed, we need challenging entertainment more than ever. Best of all, many classics are free. Don’t forget about the library, that frail ancestor of the Internet.

9. Knowledge is power.

IQ is a reliable predictor of job performance, educational attainment, income, health and longevity-and reading is still the best way to improve intelligence. By studying the works of the greatest literary minds, we build our knowledge of the world and learn to think for ourselves.

As blogger Jamie Littlefield puts it, “Let a little genius rub off on you.” I would add: Let it inspire you. Create a masterpiece out of your job, family, art and life. Use your knowledge as a trump card. Above all, use it to foster a free and independent intellect, because the only person who can ever change (or improve) your mind is you.

10. Literature, along with all art, is a distinctly human legacy.

Literature is an exploration of our humanity, one of our most important communication tools and a force that both creates and reflects our culture. From within this cumulative library of our species’ physical, rational and spiritual achievements—this magnifying glass on human nature we call literature—we can choose books that startle us from complacency, haunt us and permeate us, sharpen us and embroider our innermost details.

The written word is a gift we’ve given ourselves-and not one we should take for granted. In countries such as Niger, Guinea and Burkina Faso, less than a third of the adult population is literate. Would you regret skipping the classics if they vanished from our bookshelves tomorrow? If not, fair enough. At least I’ve made my case.

Jamie Leigh is a writer and editor based in New York City. Her irreverent reviews of classic novels can be found at the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com/. A version of this article originally appeared on Punchnels.com.


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