Becoming an author is not a career path that many (including some authors themselves) would recommend. It’s a long, hard journey that has seen more casualties than victors. That being said, it has always been a lifelong ambition of mine to begin (that’s the easiest part) and finish a story and have my own book published.
Naturally, I like to research how some of my favorite authors came to be so, and a recurring theme started to crop up in almost all of their anecdotes: they loved reading the classics. Now, I consider myself a pretty dedicated reader but I have to admit, the classics have never appealed to me. I’m not talking about the likes of 1984 or To Kill a Mockingbird. I’m referring mostly to the largely revered works of authors such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charlotte Brontë, the classics of the western world. I’m not even remotely interested in reading their stories, and my question is, could my failure to read any of the “classics” hinder my chance of becoming a great author?
Many people would answer that question with a firm and unequivocal yes. Italo Calvino was a respected journalist who famously wrote a short piece titled “Why Read the Classics?” where in which he listed 14 reasons as to why reading the classics were essential in enriching one’s life irrespective of hopes of becoming an author or not. I highly recommend that everyone has a listen to the podcast “Storywonk Sunday,” in particular, the episode titled “A Low Bar Benefits Everyone”, because the extremely loveable hosts, married couple Lani Diane Rich and Alastair Stephens, discuss each of Italo Calvino’s 14 points in exceptional and insightful detail.
Other valuable points have been made in support of indulging in the classics. An obvious one is the broadening of your vocabulary, which arguably, is the largest weapon in a writer’s arsenal. A 2013 study even went as far as to say that reading the classics could improve your emotional intelligence and social perception. Whilst I might not completely buy into that final point, I do see the merit in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s quote about the classics:
The only substitute for an experience we ourselves have never lived through is art, literature. They possess a wonderful ability: beyond distinctions of language, custom, social structure, they can convey the life experience of one whole nation to another… Literature conveys irrefutable condensed experience… from generation to generation. Thus it becomes the living memory of the nation.
There is no doubt that period literature has the enviable advantage of being completely “of its time.” They can embody the culture and represent the mindsets of an era without it even explicitly being a part of the plot. I can appreciate that you can learn a lot about history from books such as “Pride & Prejudice” and that leads onto one of the main reasons that people use to defend the reading of the classics as essential. A significant amount of people believe that if you wish to enter into the field of literature, you must “do the homework.” In respect of the art form, you must appreciate how far it has come and recognise notable contributions to its maturation.
However, since when was reading meant to be such hard work? I’m not naive. If reading is supposed to make you a better writer, of course people will say that reading the “greats” is vital. But if I don’t like them, why should I force it? Fundamentally, reading is a hobby. I love reading and I love the fact that within the reading the community, there is not a lot of room for being judgemental. There’s not the same snobbery that is often present in music communities, for example. People are more anxious about sharing their iTunes playlists than sharing the last book they read, which is a shame for the music community, but a glowing praise for the reading community.
With that in mind, there’s a greater degree of freedom to choose what I read, purely based on whether I actually like it or not. That being said, there is still an unfortunate amount of people who regard themselves better intellectuals or more well read than others simply because they can recite the classics word for word. You should read the classics because they actually interest you. You should not read the classics just so you can say you did. That is stupid. Furthermore, what does “being well read” actually mean? Is it indicative of how many books you’ve read? Or how many classic books you’ve read?
I bring this all up to lead to my main question: are the classics essential for anyone who wishes to consider themselves a great author? There’s this quote, “Read at the level you want to write” and whilst I can’t remember who said it, I believe that there are two ways that this quote can be interpreted. Firstly, I think it’s obvious to say that what you read will influence the style in which you choose to write yourself. This is inevitable, even if you don’t like the book you’ve just read. The second way to interpret this quote is to suggest that to read anything that is not a classic, is to somehow be reading a “lesser” piece of work. I disagree with this entirely. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the classics are called so for a good reason. As Lani and Stephen point out in their podcast, deciding whether something is a classic has nothing to do with taste. I’m not saying that Wuthering Heights is not a classic, I’m just saying I don’t want to read it. But, if you’re reading some of your favourite authors who have studied and read the classics, educationally speaking, isn’t it the same thing as actually reading the classics? I mean, aren’t you just learning from those who have learnt already? Are you not, in fact, indirectly gaining the stylistic intellect that people assume you gain from directly reading the classics?
Personally, I feel like I learnt an incredible amount about the sophistication of writing and the finesse of creating tangible fictional worlds from the likes of JK Rowling and Donna Tartt, and, whilst I’m not saying that I will never read the classics, I’d like to think that the fact that I haven’t will not impeach upon the quality of my writing.