1. You’ll increase your vocabulary. Whether you want to impress your in-laws, boost your SAT scores, or deliver more effective presentations at work, it’s worth familiarizing yourself with words that instantly reflect your intelligence. Reading the Greek and Latin Classics, in particular, will develop your personal word bank, since many English words have roots in these two languages. English has made a habit of widespread borrowing, but over 60% of English words are derived from Greek and Latin alone.
2. While you’re at it, you’ll also 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, if you’re in the market for that sort of thing. Just make sure you’re clear on the distinction between the good guys and the bad guys.
3. You’ll be reading something of value. The classics, and their typically universal themes, have stood the test of time; these are books in which we still find characters, experiences, emotions, and perspectives relevant today. Often an individual classic is the iconic work within a literary movement or the period in which the book was written. Usually, they are also somewhat challenging, so these are books you’ll be proud to be seen tackling. There will be no need to hide behind the anonymity of your e-reader in cafes or on public transportation. Will you like them all? Probably not. But the classics 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 straight over your head. You’ll be a walking encyclopedia of major cultural references, cited at the original source. 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. And it’s common knowledge that hundreds of popular words and expressions come straight out of Shakespeare.
5. You can “reward” yourself with the film version when you’re finished reading. Almost every classic has been made (and remade, and remade) into a movie, from Gone With the Wind to On the Road to The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird. Some film versions of the classics earned excellent reviews in their own right, but you’ll be informed enough to say whether the book was better. It probably is. Still, it’s always intriguing to see these unfailingly rich and penetrating stories brought to life on the big screen.
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 historical events and philosophies than most textbooks. Even literary classics that had little initial success, and books that have routinely been 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. They will enrich you in ways you didn’t expect. Claire Needell Hollander, a middle school English teacher in Manhattan, discovered that her most disadvantaged students connected best with the 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 own experiences in response to what they have read. As Professor Arnold Weinstein so 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. Linguistic functions used by Shakespeare have been demonstrated to stretch the brain, and researchers believe that a thorough reading of Jane Austen is associated with a level of cognitive complexity beyond that involved in solving a difficult math problem. In the era of reality TV and Buzzfeed, we may need challenging entertainment material more than ever. Best of all, many classics are free to own. And don’t forget about the library, that frail ancestor to the Internet.
9. Knowledge is power. IQ is the best predictor for job performance, educational attainment, income, health, and longevity—and reading is still considered the best way to improve intelligence. While you’re at it, why not read the classics? By studying the works of the greatest literary minds in human history, we simultaneously build our knowledge of the world one book at a time and—crucially—learn to think for ourselves. As blogger Jamie Littlefield puts it, “Let a little genius rub off on you.” And, I would add, let it inspire you. Create a masterpiece out of your job, your family, your art, your life. Use your knowledge as a trump card—a life hack. And 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 (arguably) all forms of art, is a distinctly human legacy. It is by definition an exploration of our own humanity, one of our most important tools of communication, 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 all vanished off our bookshelves tomorrow? If not, fair enough. At least I’ve made my case.
A writer, reader, and traveler, Jamie Leigh writes a literature review blog at the100greatestbookschallenge.wordpress.com and won the Purdue University Kneale Literary Award in 2008.
Aquatint engraving of Covert Garden Theatre, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Covert_Garden_Theatre_edited.jpg, via Wikimedia Commons.