Being a bit of an old-fashioned bibliophile in the 21st century is a unique and precarious position. The explosion of tech in support of digital publishing (readers, tablets, and electronic books) has made it easier than ever to delve into definitive literature at the drop of a hat. Interested in an important author that you never got around to reading in school? Google to find out his or her greatest hits, which you can then instantly download to your Kindle or iPad and start reading. Of course, that same model of digital instant gratification can make reading feel like an archaic art…and boring. Who has the patience to push through the epicness of a Russian novel when the entire series run of that addictive cable show is streaming online?
But what if you could learn something valuable from the classics of literature? What if within the tomes of those ancient works lay lessons that are still valuable today?
It’s not exactly a crazy idea. Professor and author Mitchell Kalpakgia recently wrote The Virtues We Need Again: 21 Life Lessons from the Great Books of the West, about it. “Literature is rich in wisdom, offering ‘the best that has been thought and said’ in Matthew Arnold’s famous words,” Kalpakgai explains (If you’re wondering, he’s quoting a 19th century British poet). “The classics are a treasury of the world’s accumulated wisdom that counteract trendy ideas and modern ideologies,” says Kalpakgia, who later adds: “The human mind hungers for truth and needs the wisdom these books offer—wholesome food and powerful medicine that combat a multitude of problems.”
According to Kalpakgia, what makes a work of literature a “classic” is whether or not it “deals with a subject of universal importance” and can “portray the nature of things, the structure of reality, the enduring timeless truths that touch every person’s life.” He goes on to cite how The Odyssey illustrates that family is the center of civilization and Pride and Prejudice demonstrates the importance of marrying someone for the right reasons. But it’s not just a book’s subject matter that qualifies it as “great” or “timeless” — there’s also its effect on the reader. “A classic always makes a person reflect on the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be,” says Kalpakgia. “They enlarge the consciousness.”
Conscious-enlarging or not, can picking up a book from the fiction that was written hundreds of years ago really give you more valuable life lessons than the latest bestselling pop-psychology book shelved in self-help?
Kalpakgia thinks so. For him, self-improvement books may give readers solid advice and explain things through do’s and don’ts, but they don’t engross the reader like the classics. “Self-improvement books do not make a person love, admire, and wonder at the beauty of goodness or feel hate and disgust at the ugliness of evil,” says Kalpakgia. “They do not engage the heart, soul, or imagination.” Meanwhile, he points out, a classic like Little Womenshowcases the goodness of marriage and the beauty of family or another like Paradise Lost reveals the wretchedness and sadness of evil.
So if you’re ready to get reading, don’t expect any advice on a strategy for the best way to get the most from your text — at least from Kalpakgia. “There are no magical formulas or simplified techniques,” he says. Instead, reading a classic should be done leisurely to fully experience the book’s depth and range.” Though Kalpakgia does advise against cracking open any books with the pre-conception that they’re old-fashioned or outdated “The reader of a classic should bring some humility to the book,” he explains. “Why has this book endured and passed the test of time, the most difficult test of all?” According to Kalpakgia, the reader should try to find the characteristics that have helped the book become a classic over its entertainment value.
Of course, at the end of the day you’re still going to have to choose to read a classic piece of literature over watching a full season’s worth of edgy cable drama in one sitting. “Just as there is great art, great music, and great architecture that evokes wonder and enlarges the mind,” explains Kalpakgia “the classics too possess the power to reach the depths of the mind, heart, and soul in a way that films and media can never penetrate.”
Sounds appealing to us.
Professor Kalpakgia's Recommended Reads With Lessons
The Book: The Iliad by Homer
The lesson: “No matter how great the tragedy, life goes on.”
The Book: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The lesson: “A happy marriage offers the greatest source of human contentment in this life.”
The Book: Hard Times by Charles Dickens
The lesson: “Play and fun are more important than work and money.”
The Book: Paradiso by Dante
The lesson: “Love in its inexhaustible, overflowing, outpouring energy has no boundaries or limits as it continuously receives love from its divine source to give it freely only to receive more to give more in the endless exchanges of loving and being loved.”