Dogged readers of my columns will observe that I habitually quote a handful of classic writings, chiefly the Shakespeare works, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and The Federalist Papers. If those readers suspect that these few masterpieces pretty much exhaust my learning, they are correct.
When I was young, I bought the whole set of Mortimer Adler’s Great Books of the Western World, intending to read them all. But somehow I never got around to more than a few of them. Ditto the works of Dickens and Balzac.
I’m a voracious reader, but most of what I read is the most perishable kind of literature, journalism. After all, journalism is my racket, and that means keeping up with things that will soon be forgotten. So I start the day with several newspapers, but seldom finish it with a classic I haven’t read before.
In Mark Twain’s famous definition, a classic is a book everyone wants to have read, but nobody wants to read. Gulp! But those daunting all-time must-reading lists are a little misleading. It can take years to master a single great author. Much of what we “know” about the classics is what we’ve heard about them in advance, and we may not get beyond their reputations until we’ve read them several times.
Yet the few classics I know thoroughly have been invaluable, even in my work as a journalist. To know a single old book well, even if it hasn’t been canonized as a “classic,” is to have a certain anchorage you can’t get from most contemporary writing.
There are no particular classics, not even Shakespeare, that you “must” read. But you should find a few meritorious old writers you find absorbing and not only read them, but live with them, until they become voices in your mind — a sort of internal council you can consult at any time.
When you internalize an author whose vision or philosophy is both rich and out of fashion, you gain a certain immunity from the pressures of the contemporary. The modern world, with its fads, propaganda, and advertising, is forever trying to herd us into conformity. Great literature can help us remain fad-proof.
The modern world is like a perpetual Nuremburg rally: everything that was wrong with Nazi Germany is more or less typical of other modern states, even those states that imagine they are the opposite of Nazi Germany. Political enemies usually turn out to be cousins, whose most violent differences are essentially superficial, masking deeper agreements in principle. Stalin, Hitler, Franklin Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill were closer to each other than they realized; so are Bill Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic.
When confronted with a new topic or political issue, I often ask myself what Shakespeare, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, or James Madison — or, among more recent authors, George Orwell, C.S. Lewis, or Michael Oakeshott — would have thought of it. Not that these men were always right: that would be impossible, since they often disagree with each other. The great authors have no specific “message.”
But at least they had minds of their own. They weren’t mere products of the thought-factory we call public opinion, which might be defined as what everyone thinks everyone else thinks. They provide independent, poll-proof standards of judgment, when the government, its schools, and the media, using all the modern techniques of manipulation, try to breed mass uniformity in order to make us more manageable.
It’s up to us to maintain some detachment, and the literature of the past helps make this possible. That’s why tyrannical governments usually try to control, marginalize, or even abolish that literature, especially religious literature. This need not be achieved by overt censorship; it can be done through school curricula, or in the name of “the separation of church and state.”
The classics are those books that discerning readers, over time, have recognized as offering fresh ways of seeing the world —“news that stays new,” as someone has put it. It might also be called news that stays urgent.
And stays delightful. There’s nothing quite like the joy of falling in love with an old book, finding a mentor who speaks to you across the centuries.