I'm issuing a challenge to readers for the new year: for every new book that you read this year, read (or-re-read) a classic book. I am going to attempt to undertake this challenge myself. As the editor of a book review, I am deluged with dozens of new books every week, and yet I have bookshelves full of classics that I want to read. Most days, I feel like I can't even keep up with the new titles being released, let alone go back and re-read classics from years past. So, I'm hoping to unshackle myself this year from the tyranny of the new and invite you to join me on this quest.
Before going any further, let me define what I mean by a "classic." I'm not the kind of curmudgeon that Alan Jacobs rails against in his recent book The Pleasures of Reading in An Age of Distraction, the Mortimer-Adler-sort of person who has a rigid list of classics that everyone must read. A classic is any book that is not a new book, one that merits re-reading, 5, 10, even 100 years or more after its publication. The library of the tiny, liberal arts college I attended had the words of John Ruskin etched just outside its doors: "All books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time." It is the latter of these categories that I refer to as classics, books that are not the books of the moment. Personally, for the 2013 reading challenge, I am going to limit myself to pre-1923 works that are in the U.S. public domain (mostly because these books are widely available for little or no cost through public libraries or as ebooks for Kindle or other e-reader devices).
Why read (or re-read) classics? I have already alluded to the fact that it is a gentle thumbing of the nose to the publishers' marketing divisions reminding them that they do not own us. There are certainly good reasons for reading choice "books of the hour" -- to help us reflect on our times and to help us prepare for the particular challenges that lurk just beyond the horizon, for instance -- but I could certainly benefit from diversifying my reading habits (and I suspect that many other readers could do the same.) On a deeper level, though, I think there is a dangerous temptation in Western culture to ignore or dismiss the past, and a reader's habit of tackling primarily or exclusively new books tends to draw one deeper into this temptation. This aversion to history goes back at least as far as Descartes -- who at the outset of his Meditations (there's a classic one might choose to read this year!) determined to set aside the historical opinions that he had been taught in his youth and began to build anew "a firm and permanent structure" of knowledge that extended outward from his own mind and body. Unlike Descartes who summarily dismissed his own history, we need to recover roots and begin a conversation with them. Understanding our past is an essential part of making sense of the present and preparing ourselves for the future.
Some people might object to reading the classics, as little more than the writings of a bunch of "dead white men," and there is a grain of truth to this objection, as the privilege of such writers has aided the dissemination and preservation of their writings, but there are many exceptions (from Emily Dickinson to Frederick Douglass to Gandhi to Phillis Wheatley and on and on). One could easily choose to read works by authors of a particular, race, gender, etc. and have more than enough classics to read in a single year. Additionally, we should not forget the benefit of read works critically. Consider the work of Descartes, as mentioned above; if we are to imagine a world that is not so radically individualistic and disregarding of history, we need to understand how we got into this mess and be able to critique works like those of Descartes that pointed humanity in this direction.
Read critically, read selectively, read works that are from writers of a different perspective than you (as Ross Douthat has argued in a recent New York Times op-ed piece), but whatever approach you prefer, take the time this year to read classics as part of your reading routine. In a world driven by the forces of individualism and consumerism, reading, reflecting on and discussing classics will provide a healthy perspective on (and counterbalance to) the economic, ecological and social challenges of our times.