Why should we care about classic literature? In our age of information, when the answer to any question is just a click away, what value does reading fiction hold? You might be surprised to learn that reading the classics can actually make you a better person.
Literature is considered classic if it has stood the test of time and become representative of the era in which it was written. Because of this, classic literature still holds meaningful, relevant truths of the human experience. Even though these books were written many decades or centuries ago, they can give us insights into today’s world.
In a 2013 study by the New School for Social Research in New York City, researchers found that reading literary fiction improved social skills and emotional intelligence by increasing empathy in their subjects. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Toronto also shows that literature can help people gain intelligence and improve their creativity and judgment.
Classic literature creates, shapes, and reflects culture. It expands what Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler termed “the Great Conversation”, which is an ongoing intellectual canon building upon previous ideas of writers and thinkers. In his 1990 article, “The Great Conversation Revisited”, Adler wrote:
“What binds the authors together in an intellectual community is the great conversation in which they are engaged. In the works that come later in the sequence of years, we find authors listening to what their predecessors have had to say about this idea or that, this topic or that. They not only hearken to the thought of their predecessors, they also respond to it by commenting on it in a variety of ways.”
A true classic is never finished speaking to us. From Macbeth to Oedipus Rex to The Prince, each masterpiece reveals new insights even on its 100th read. Literature will continue to remain relevant as the world grows increasingly connected and ideas can be spread more rapidly.
In past generations, publishing houses and magazine editors acted as gateways, determining who could enter the conversation. Now these gateways have been all but removed, with the advent of social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. There are countless ways anyone can share their ideas with a vast number of people, through blogs, ebooks, and videos.
So the real questions is, will you participate? Will you join in the Great Conversation of the ages?
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. … To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.”
C. S. Lewis