Classical literature is a portal to the human spirit and imagination, a link to our history and development, and a way 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 relate to our current life.
Literature becomes classic by incorporating in its pages themes that unite humanity. It features 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.
John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” is a story about overcoming a criminal past, fighting hunger and poverty, fighting to provide for a family, standing up to corruption, and fighting for a cause greater than oneself. Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” describes the plight of a woman who is seduced, pregnant and single, who seeks love, struggles to survive in an unequal world, and is rejected. Even Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories remind us that brilliant eccentrics are outlandish and, despite their intellect, sometimes choose a destructive path as evidenced by their cocaine use.
These shared human experiences transcend national boundaries, ages, languages, religions, ethnicities, and gender. They bring us together to realize that we all bleed red and we all fight on earth, although circumstances may vary.
Ties to the past
While the themes are timeless, classical literature keeps alive the progress we have made as a human race. On "The death of arthur" By Thomas Malory, we see the evolution of our language from Old English in the 16th century to today’s spellings, nouns, and contractions. We get a glimpse of life in medieval times with armor and swords compared to our tie suits and ICBMs 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 in which they worked. We see Christmas 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.
Improving our image
While it may not be critical, it is important for people to understand classical literature as it is used in the course of daily interaction in a complex world. Knowledge of classical literature is the final layer of wax on an educated and polished being.
Hearing that Henry was “angry” at trying to undermine co-workers at the office sounds better than telling someone that Henry’s plan failed. We have all experienced examples of a Catch-22 and have been told that we must show “grace under pressure.”
We were warned that “never be a lender or a borrower”, however, as teams, we should be “all for one and one for all”. Do we know “for whom the bell tolls?” Certainly. It is “elementary, my dear Watson” (although Holmes never said that exact phrase, he is often misquoted in this way).
Classical literature opens up a life of thinking, feeling, and experiencing life in terms broader than ourselves, and yet it strikes the essence of who we are as individuals. Its benefits are to observe our humanity in others in the past as we share it in our daily lives. It makes the things around us more relevant and polishes us in an unfinished world.