Why You Should Read Old Classics… Even (Read: Especially) Once You Are No Longer In School

“Friendship… is born at the moment when one man says to another
‘What! You too? I thought that no one but myself…'”

C.S. Lewis

I get it. I really do. Back in our school days, especially during high school, we had to read old books that seemed so far removed that it seemed like Literature Class was a Historical Cultures Appreciation Class. The only character the boys liked in Romeo & Juliet was Mercutio, but even most of the girls found the thought of killing yourself over a dead boy to be incredibly insulting.

Though racism is certainly still a problem in America today, To Kill a Mockingbird, even as (comparatively) recent as it is, the circumstances still seem foreign. We might still as a nation struggle with prejudice (literally “pre-judging”) by assuming someone to be of questionable character if their skin color or the neighborhood they grew up in wasn’t the best, but the thought of a jury convicting an innocent man that was proven innocent by evidence presented in court is unheard of. Yes, innocent men are still convicted, sometimes by tainted evidence, sometimes by a judge handpicking evidence to be presented or barred, but not by 12 people choosing to willfully convict one, innocent man because of his skin color so the known guilty party could escape because of his skin color. That is beyond what most of us alive today have ever lived through. If by some horrible chance it did happen, there certainly would be protests to the point the city would be shut down, not a resigned acceptance.

With all this in mind, it’s very understandable why we eagerly leave behind the writings of all the “old dead people” with our school years. If you studied Literature in college in recent years, you almost certainly spent some time diving into books with more current and global topics, as even at the college older literature seems to be more and more respected for the sake of its antiquity, and if you want to really challenge yourself you read books that deal with our modern-day situations.

But this is precisely why we need to keep reading the old classics: to those that take the time to read them, they reveal how eerily similar our circumstances are to those who have been dead and buried for hundreds of years and lived oceans apart from us. As Mssr. Karr noted, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”

How cliché, I know. But do you fully appreciate all the ramifications? There are several.

First, it means we can enjoy a sense of kinship with people that lived long before we did. We experience common miseries, trials, jokes, and triumphs. Certain authors can even leave us laughing out loud (well, at least they leave ME laughing out loud) with their sarcastic and ironic observations of problems I’m facing generations later in a different country. Let me share this excerpt from Dickens’ Little Dorrit, written 160 years ago, and see if you don’t instantly feel a sense of camaraderie in the narrator’s frustration and attempts at finding humor in his observations of a government agency:

The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office. Its finger was in the largest public pie, and in the smallest public tart. It was equally impossible to do the plainest right and to undo the plainest wrong without the express authority of the Circumlocution Office. If another Gunpowder Plot had been discovered half an hour before the lighting of the match, nobody would have been justified in saving the parliament until there had been half a score of boards, half a bushel of minutes, several sacks of official memoranda, and a family-vault full of ungrammatical correspondence, on the part of the Circumlocution Office.

This glorious establishment had been early in the field, when the one sublime principle involving the difficult art of governing a country, was first distinctly revealed to statesmen. It had been foremost to study that bright revelation and to carry its shining influence through the whole of the official proceedings. Whatever was required to be done, the Circumlocution Office was beforehand with all the public departments in the art of perceiving — HOW NOT TO DO IT.

Through this delicate perception, through the tact with which it invariably seized it, and through the genius with which it always acted on it, the Circumlocution Office had risen to overtop all the public departments; and the public condition had risen to be — what it was.

It is true that How not to do it was the great study and object of all public departments and professional politicians all round the Circumlocution Office. It is true that every new premier and every new government, coming in because they had upheld a certain thing as necessary to be done, were no sooner come in than they applied their utmost faculties to discovering How not to do it. It is true that from the moment when a general election was over, every returned man who had been raving on hustings because it hadn’t been done, and who had been asking the friends of the honourable gentleman in the opposite interest on pain of impeachment to tell him why it hadn’t been done, and who had been asserting that it must be done, and who had been pledging himself that it should be done, began to devise, How it was not to be done. It is true that the debates of both Houses of Parliament the whole session through, uniformly tended to the protracted deliberation, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech at the opening of such session virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have a considerable stroke of work to do, and you will please to retire to your respective chambers, and discuss, How not to do it. It is true that the royal speech, at the close of such session, virtually said, My lords and gentlemen, you have through several laborious months been considering with great loyalty and patriotism, How not to do it, and you have found out; and with the blessing of Providence upon the harvest (natural, not political), I now dismiss you. All this is true, but the Circumlocution Office went beyond it.

Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion. Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him. It was this spirit of national efficiency in the Circumlocution Office that had gradually led to its having something to do with everything. Mechanicians, natural philosophers, soldiers, sailors, petitioners, memorialists, people with grievances, people who wanted to prevent grievances, people who wanted to redress grievances, jobbing people, jobbed people, people who couldn’t get rewarded for merit, and people who couldn’t get punished for demerit, were all indiscriminately tucked up under the foolscap paper of the Circumlocution Office.

Numbers of people were lost in the Circumlocution Office. Unfortunates with wrongs, or with projects for the general welfare (and they had better have had wrongs at first, than have taken that bitter English recipe for certainly getting them), who in slow lapse of time and agony had passed safely through other public departments; who, according to rule, had been bullied in this, over-reached by that, and evaded by the other; got referred at last to the Circumlocution Office, and never reappeared in the light of day. Boards sat upon them, secretaries minuted upon them, commissioners gabbled about them, clerks registered, entered, checked, and ticked them off, and they melted away. In short, all the business of the country went through the Circumlocution Office, except the business that never came out of it; and its name was Legion.

Sometimes, angry spirits attacked the Circumlocution Office. Sometimes, parliamentary questions were asked about it, and even parliamentary motions made or threatened about it by demagogues so low and ignorant as to hold that the real recipe of government was, How to do it. Then would the noble lord, or right honourable gentleman, in whose department it was to defend the Circumlocution Office, put an orange in his pocket, and make a regular field-day of the occasion. Then would he come down to that house with a slap upon the table, and meet the honourable gentleman foot to foot. Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that the Circumlocution Office not only was blameless in this matter, but was commendable in this matter, was extollable to the skies in this matter. Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that, although the Circumlocution Office was invariably right and wholly right, it never was so right as in this matter. Then would he be there to tell that honourable gentleman that it would have been more to his honour, more to his credit, more to his good taste, more to his good sense, more to half the dictionary of commonplaces, if he had left the Circumlocution Office alone, and never approached this matter. Then would he keep one eye upon a coach or crammer from the Circumlocution Office sitting below the bar, and smash the honourable gentleman with the Circumlocution Office account of this matter. And although one of two things always happened; namely, either that the Circumlocution Office had nothing to say and said it, or that it had something to say of which the noble lord, or right honourable gentleman, blundered one half and forgot the other; the Circumlocution Office was always voted immaculate by an accommodating majority.
Such a nursery of statesmen had the Department become in virtue of a long career of this nature, that several solemn lords had attained the reputation of being quite unearthly prodigies of business, solely from having practised, How not to do it, as the head of the Circumlocution Office. As to the minor priests and acolytes of that temple, the result of all this was that they stood divided into two classes, and, down to the junior messenger, either believed in the Circumlocution Office as a heaven-born institution that had an absolute right to do whatever it liked; or took refuge in total infidelity, and considered it a flagrant nuisance.

Anyone who has had to go through a government agency for approval instantly understands him. The name Circumlocution Office may have a different alias, but its identity cannot be in doubt. Its officials, again with different aliases, we know by their dress and behavior.

“But that was less than two centuries ago,” I can hear some of you saying. “And Britain is hardly worlds away from America.”

Fair enough. How about I go to Ancient Japan? To the author of The Tale of Genji… you know, that Japanese epic written a thousand years ago in a culture that at the time had no Western influence and to this day our respective denizens find themselves making constant faux paus to the other? The author – Murasaki Shikibu – had many letters that have somehow survived to this day. Read them. Her day to day life was filled with things we can immediately relate to. The feelings of loneliness as old friends believe she has “changed” as she began working in the court of a princess. The feelings of disdain she had for her boss because she was so out of touch with reality (at least our bosses aren’t royalty!). Suddenly, while still frustrated with her boss, she feels a sense of pride when she finds out she was hand-picked because of a talent she had tried to keep hidden (reading Chinese – the language of learning at the time in Japan, Latin or German was for the West). Forgetting your best friend pulled an all-nighter at work and was off today and barging in to visit… and that friend after going essentially, “Really…¦REALLY?!” Still willfully helping you with what you came over for and coming up with an insane, half-jest method for you to return the favor… at least, you’re hoping it was half-jest!

Reading Classics will help you put your own world into a better perspective. When you realize we are dealing with the same things that the world has been dealing with since the dawn of time, you began to understand your own world better, and both have more reasonable expectations of your contemporaries while also becoming more convicted of the need for commitment for the things that are most important to you – whether that be social change, family relationships, etc.

Prejudiced people? That’s plagued every culture of every time. What they are prejudiced against has changed. It may be ethnicity or race (Jews, African Americans, etc.). It certainly still is in every culture when it comes to social class and/or occupation. How can this knowledge help? By realizing you aren’t going to end the human race’s prejudicial nature. Still, looking at history, there is certainly plenty of evidence of ending it against a particular group. Regardless, it should help all of us in being honest with ourselves. What prejudices do we secretly harbor, even from ourselves? I’m not trying to guilt anyone, nor am I trying to excuse the guilt. If we recognize that prejudicial behavior is human nature, we are more likely to be honest with ourselves since we no longer need feel defensive that we are being accused of some subhuman crime. The attitude may indeed cause inhumane problems, but its presence in our own subconscious thoughts makes us simply human. By honestly evaluating ourselves, we can take steps that we truly do people with the dignity and respect they deserve. It also allows us to evaluate false accusations of prejudice. If you have taken the time to honestly evaluate and compensate for your natural shortcomings, then you also avoid the feelings of guilt and doubt when you are falsely accused of being prejudiced. While I chose prejudicial behavior as the example because it is at the forefront of the American cultural consciousness, the truth is that it is equally true of any human vice or virtue.

When we read the Classic works of those who came before us, we begin to see our place in human history more clearly. The result is a friendship with people we never met, the assurance that our trials will not be forgotten by later generations, and a deeper understanding appreciation of our contemporaries. What Classic will you pick up next? Is there one you would recommend?

-Eric Sparks II

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