Classic literature is a portal to the human spirit and imagination, a link to our history and development, and a path in which to navigate the educated world. Its benefits include the knowledge of ourselves as human beings, the knowledge of our roots, and the knowledge of how these concepts and realities tie to our current life.
Universally binding: Literature becomes classic by embedding in its pages themes that tie humanity together. It presents conflicts, choices, human nature, character, ethics, morality—elements of life that are as relevant to someone in Beijing as they are to someone in Minot, North Dakota.
“The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck is a story of overcoming a criminal past, combating hunger and poverty, fighting to provide for one’s family, encountering corruption, and fighting for a cause larger than oneself. “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” by Thomas Hardy depicts the plight of a woman who is seduced, pregnant and unwed, searching for love, fighting for survival in an unequal world, and being rejected. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of Sherlock Holmes remind us that brilliant eccentrics are quirky and, despite their intellect, they sometimes choose a destructive path as evidenced in his cocaine use.
Such shared human experiences cut across national boundaries, ages, languages, religions, ethnicities and gender. They bring us together to realize we all bleed red and we all struggle on earth although the circumstances may vary.
Ties to the Past: While the themes are timeless, classic literature keeps alive the progress we’ve made as a human race. In “Le Morte D’Arthur” by Thomas Malory, we see the evolution of our language from the Old English of the 1500’s to the modern day spellings, nouns and contractions now in daily use. We get a view of life in medieval times with suits of armor and swords compared to our suits with ties and intercontinental ballistic missiles of today.
Through the eyes of Charles Dickens, we see the world of Victorian England in “A Christmas Carol,” along with how employees used to be treated and the conditions under which they worked. We see holiday traditions and even the limitations of medical treatments at that time. Certainly no computer or cell phone for Bob Cratchit and no MRI for Tiny Tim.
Brushing Up Our Image: While it is perhaps not critical, it is important that people understand classic literature as it is used in the course of daily interaction in a complex world. Knowledge of classic literature is the final coat of wax on a polished, educated being.
Hearing that Henry was “hoist with his own petard” in trying to undermine co-workers at the office just sounds better than telling someone Henry’s plan backfired. We’ve all lived through examples of a Catch-22 and have been told that we must show “grace under pressure”.
We’ve been warned “never a lender nor a borrower be,” yet as teams, we should be “all for one and one for all.” Do we know “for whom the bells tolls?” Certainly. It’s “elementary, my dear Watson” (while Holmes never stated this exact phrase, he is oft misquoted this way).
Classic literature opens a lifetime of thinking and feeling and experiencing life in terms larger than ourselves, and yet strikes at the essence of who we are as individuals. Its benefits are watching our humanness in others in the past as we share in it in our daily lives. It makes more relevant the things around us and polishes us in an unfinished world.