The other day I came across some disturbing statistics on reading. According to a Jenkins Group survey, 42% of college graduates will never read another book. Since most people read bestsellers printed in the past 10 years, it follows that virtually no one is reading the classics. Although it’s unfortunate that the intellectual heritage of humanity is being forgotten we can use this to our benefit. By reading the classics to improve your mind you can give yourself an advantage. These examples illustrate 10 ways reading the classics will help you succeed.
1. Bigger Vocabulary
When reading the classics you’ll come across many words that are no longer commonly used. Why learn words most people don’t use? To set yourself apart. Having a bigger vocabulary is like having a tool box with more tools. A larger arsenal of words enables you to express yourself more eloquently. You’ll be able to communicate with precision and create a perception of higher intelligence that will give you an advantage in work and social situations.
2. Improved Writing Ability
Reading the classics is the easiest way to improve your writing. While reading you unconsciously absorb the grammar and style of the author. Why not learn from the best? Great authors have a tendency to take over your mind. After reading, I’ve observed that my thoughts begin to mirror the writer’s style. This influence carries over to writing, helping form clear, rhythmic sentences.
3. Improved Speaking Ability
Becoming a better speaker accompanies becoming a better writer because both are caused by becoming a better thinker. Studying works of genius will teach you to express yourself with clarity and style. By improving your command of the English language, you’ll become more persuasive, sound more intelligent, and enjoy an advantage over less articulate people.
4. Fresh Ideas
Isn’t it ironic that the best source for new ideas are writers who’ve been dead for centuries? I’ve derived some of my best ideas directly from the classics. It makes sense when you consider the competition. Everyone you know is reading the same popular blogs and bestselling books. Observing the same ideas as everyone else leads to generic and repetitive thinking. No wonder it’s difficult to sound original! By looking to the classics for inspiration you can enhance your creativity and find fresh subject matter.
5. Historical Perspective
I could argue this point myself, but why bother if Einstein has already done it?
Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.
There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.
Nothing is more needed than to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.
6. Educational Entertainment
Reading great books is fun. The key is getting past the initial vocabulary barrier. It’s actually less difficult than you think. Even challenging authors use a limited vocabulary. After the initial learning curve, you’ll find the classics as readable as modern books and infinitely more stimulating. Classics have endured because of entertainment value. There’s a reason filmmakers keep remaking old books — they have the best content.
If you’d like to excel in conversation, knowledge of the classics is essential. These are books that keep coming up. They’re a part of human history that isn’t going to disappear in 10 years like 99% of books on the bestsellers list. By reading the classics you gain a deeper appreciation of ideas generally taken for granted. Plus quoting Aristotle or Voltaire is a great way to win an argument.
8. More Efficient Reading
I just finished reading The Road by Cormac MacCarthy. It’s so good that it won the Pulitzer Prize. Afterwards I read the first few chapters of Lolita. I was shocked by Lolita’s superiority. Truly great books don’t come around every year. If you only read contemporary literature, you’re drawing from a diluted pool. Why not make the most of your reading time by finding the best of the best?
9. Develop a Distinct Voice
If you’re a writer/blogger, ignoring the classics is a mistake. This has nothing to do with subject matter. Regardless of what you write about, you need to be persuasive and develop a distinct voice. The best way to learn is from the masters. I’ve seen several articles recommend examples of good writing — they’ve all been other blogs. I have a feeling most people reading this article already read enough blogs. Spending some time with the classics will give you an edge.
10. Learn Timeless Ideas
We like to believe, in our modern arrogance, that technology has changed everything. In truth, it feels the same to be alive today as it did a thousand years ago. The lessons of the classics carry as much weight as ever. They contain information that is directly applicable to your life. Don’t believe me? Try reading Ben Franklin’s Autobiography without learning something. Reading the classics develops an understanding of the human condition and a deeper appreciation of modern problems.
In closing, I’d like to briefly anticipate criticism. This is not an attack on everything modern. To read nothing but the classics would be as foolish as completely ignoring them. The aim is to combine the wisdom of the past with the innovation of the future. The two are inextricably linked — the best books are yet to be written.
Also, this is not an appeal to snobbery. Quite the opposite. Reading the classics is a cheap hobby. Used copies can be borrowed from the library or purchased for 1/20 the cost of trendy books that are the talk of high society. Please stop associating the classics with your English Lit. Professor.
Update: A number of people have asked for book recommendations. I’m can’t do this explicitly because it varies too much from person to person, but for an overview of different types of books check out this post: The 5 Types of Books that Increase Intelligence.
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