How to Read a Classic

Louise Cowan writes:

Classics are not always easy to read. Some may not be immediately entertaining; yet when properly read they all offer deeply enjoyable experiences. To find this joy, one must persist in the reading process, not stopping inordinately to look up words, but assuming meaning from context. Aristotle tells us that the artist “imitates an action” in his making of a work; and by the word action he means not plot but an interior movement of the soul. Hence it is not so much facts and information that one derives from reading a great book as it is an underlying and sustaining insight – which is always a new and profound interpretation of life.

Classics reach out to involve the reader in the process of interpretation, so that the experience becomes authentic. We have to “listen as a three-year child,” to use Coleridge’s line from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Otherwise, if we attempt from the beginning to impose our own opinions on what we read, we miss the wisdom it has to offer. Interpretation and evaluation should come after a full reading of the work – after we too have learned enough from the journey to interpret the landscape.

One should read a classic with pencil in hand. Such a work is so dense and complex as to require its readers to participate in the unfolding of its thought. The very act of underlining and annotating serves to engage the reader in a conversation with the text. And afterwards, when the linear experience of reading is complete, one can easily scan back over the marked pages – and thereby fix their pertinent ideas firmly in the mind. This retrospection, in fact, is a necessity if one is to grasp these writings in any depth. The act of putting the parts together leads to contemplation and hence to a deeper experience of the work.

When reading, one needs to remember that poets and philosophers are not prescribing courses of action but exploring aspects of existence. To the extent that they are significant writers, they are letting us know that certain inexorable laws exist in the human make-up – and in the universe – and that we’d better be aware of them. A classic does not dispute or sermonize; Tolstoy, for instance, neither exculpates or condemns his heroine in Anna Karenina: instead he shows his readers the tragic effects of a life lived entirely for self-fulfillment.

One should come to such works, then, with what Coleridge has called a “willing suspension of disbelief,” a susceptibility to being led into a mental experience that will prove, in the end, enlightening. A classic beckons to thought, not action. Hence readers are free from the pressures of manipulation or propaganda in their approach to the great books; they are introduced to a realm above the ordinary hurly-burly of life, where they can reflect on their own insights and come to some sense of the powers of the mind and heart. 

The classics constitute an almost infallible process for awakening the soul to its full stature. In coming to know a classic, one has made a friend for life. It can be recalled to the mind and “read” all over again in the imagination. And actually perusing the text anew provides a joy that increases with time. These marvelous works stand many rereadings without losing their force. In fact, they almost demand rereading, as a Beethoven symphony demands replaying. We never say of a musical masterpiece, “Oh I’ve heard that!” Instead, we hunger to hear it again to take in once more, with new feeling and insight, its long-familiar strains.

– “The Importance of the Classics,” Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to the Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read.


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