It has struck me recently that classics are good books.
And not just in the "YOU SHOULD READ JANE EYRE BECAUSE IT'S LIKE A CLASSIC AND SUCH" way, either. Classics, it turns out, have usually done something to earn the title, and I think we often forget that.
Don't get me wrong. I dislike Great Expectations as much as the next person. Perhaps even more. It's tough to appreciate a book with archaic diction and sentence structure (Especially Dickens' syntactical train-wrecks. Hoo golly. [Yes I know he's a master of the English language. I don't care.])
But once you get past the frustratingly obtuse turns of phrase, you begin to pick up on the emotional brilliance of these writers. Deep psychological examinations of traumatized characters coping with the events of the story. Regardless of how cliche the specifics have become, the emotions transcend centuries.
Take Shakespeare, for instance. I used to hate Shakespeare. "He's over-rated," I would say, "A complete hack. He wrote for money, that's it. Sure, he was good in his time, but we're past that now."
And then I read Hamlet again.
Something you never notice about that play is how blatantly, how strikingly, and how gut-wrenchingly unhappy it is. Hamlet's soliloquy, the one that begins "To be or not to be, that is the question..." is about suicide.
Today we see as melodrama; something to be ridiculed and poked fun at, ever since Mel Gibson's garbled rendition that ignored an entire scene and ruined Hamlet's reputation for an entire generation, spawning the skull-holding cliche that still haunts us today(I'M NOT BITTER NO NOT AT ALL.) My first memory of Hamlet was when it was 'performed' on the cartoon Animaniacs one bright Saturday morning sometime in the early nineties. Hamlet was performed by Wakko, in a faux-British accent that grated on my nerves even then.
I laughed. It was funny.
Just play that back in your mind for a moment. I laughed. It was funny.
This just goes to show how much we, collectively, don't understand Hamlet.
For contrast, here is the beginning of the actual soliloquy:
"To be or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause."
Hamlet is saying that death is preferable. End your troubles. Sure, go on with life; suicide might not be worth it. But, then again, what if it is?
I mean, holy crud.
And then there's the whole issue of whether or not he actually means it or if he's just pretending in order to throw off his fiance Ophelia who's been used to gauge Hamlet's madness by her father Polonius who is the right-hand man of Claudius, the King of Denmark (who we all know killed Hamlet's father and married his mother, just for kicks.)
Just about the point where Hamlet accidentally stabs Polonius causing Ophelia to go mad with grief and drown herself, I remebered that the play Hamlet was totally awesome.
That's the problem with classics: we see them so often that nobody remembers how rad they are. The list doesn't stop with Shakespeare, either. Everything from Hawthorne to Dostoyevsky is worth reading. Forget Twilight, read Wuthering Heights. If you're looking to be depressed, read The Sun Also Rises. For comedy, A Confederacy of Dunces.
It turns out, there's a reason that your high-school teachers made you read these books. People have been feeling the same emotions for generations upon generations. Sometimes, an author finds the best way to capture those emotions with words; when that happens, a classic is born.
Read classics. There's a reason they're good, even if you know the story.