It’s time to confess. We all did it—reading Cliffs Notes, skimming online “study guides,” leeching off of classroom discussions and faking our way through tests—anything not to have to read the seemingly pointless and irrelevant “classics” inflicted upon us as high school students. I’m not pointing fingers. I admit that I too engaged in this blatant form of cheating. But now, as an English teacher, I feel the need to come clean.
With this painful confession of our past sin comes the need to repent. Perhaps due penance can be found in finally revisiting these ancient tomes we disregarded with such irreverence in the naiveté of our youth. I know, who has time for these dusty stories of times past—especially with the availability of newer and more timely books like The De Vinci Code, Left Behind, and The Purpose Driven Life? I’m not saying that these newer books aren’t fun, informative and thought provoking, but there must be a reason, other than masochistic torture, that English teachers across the nation have repeatedly canonized certain texts despite the perpetual groaning of teenagers throughout the decades.
Perhaps, now that we are all older and wiser, reading with new eyes and new experience, we are better prepared to receive these texts with understanding and appreciation. But in order to get the most out of our reading experience, we must first understand the value of the texts as well as our role as the reader.
What constitutes a classic? On the most basic level, classics are timeless works that capture the universal, unchanging realities of human existence: the relationships, victories, defeats, battles and choices we all face. Elizabeth Bennet embodies the internal conflict of a fiercely independent woman in love; Gatsby epitomizes the American drive toward success; and even the fantastical Gollum reflects the ubiquitous struggle between good and evil that rages in every man’s heart as he seeks to choose between what he wants and what he knows is right.
But beyond depicting our shared human experiences, these texts also transcend the realm of the tangible and explore the abstract truths we recognize but do not always understand, such as the powerful forces of love, hate, sacrifice, greed, redemption, jealousy and freedom. Studying the contexts in which these classics were written reveals that many of these works were considered to be progressive, even controversial, in their own time, and savvy readers across the decades have recognized the continued applicability of the themes depicted in these works. In short, “classics” are timelessly relevant.
Although few of the texts considered to be classics would be labeled as Christian works, they are all fraught with elements of the transcendent. Writer Madeleine L’Engle believes that all true art is sacred. She points out in her book Walking on Water that “basically there can be no categories such as ‘religious’ art and ‘secular’ art because all true art is incarnational, and therefore ‘religious.’” We believe Christ is in all things—if a writer of integrity faithfully depicts the truth he observes in God’s creation, he cannot help but capture a spark of the divine.
Beyond understanding the intrinsic value of the text, we must also understand our role as reader. Unlike passively viewing film or television, reading offers us the opportunity to actively collaborate with some of the greatest minds in the world to create our own narratives in the mind.
We have a responsibility as reader to decode and interpret and imagine. Without the active participation of our minds, the letters on a page are nothing but tidy, meaningless scribbles. It is up to us as readers to use our knowledge and experience to bring these texts to life.
Finally, after accepting these texts as the sacred gifts that they are and collaborating with these writers to breath life into the worlds and characters they created, we must then critically receive and apply the truths extracted from these works. Remember that Jesus taught in parables. He embedded mystical truths of the kingdom of God within stories of common, everyday life. And these truths are still reflected in the stories told by gifted writers throughout the ages.
C. S. Lewis suggests, “Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” Although no good can come from our submissively accepting anything in print as inherently right and good, critical discernment, interpretation, and application can allow these texts to color and enrich our understanding of ourselves, others, and the world.
So it’s time to dig out that library card and reintroduce yourself to Scout and Atticus Finch, Holden Caufield and Nick Carraway. Join Anna Karenina in her struggles with marriage and Anne Elliot in her struggles without it. Experience the perseverance of the human spirit with the Joad family and the power of intellectual freedom with Guy Montag. Allow yourself to dialogue with the brilliant minds of Hawthorn, Chopin, Doestevskey, Conrad, and Shelley. And this time enjoy! No need to worry about quizzes, tests or essays.