I Was Late to the Classics Party

gatsbyI’m a bit of a late bloomer as a serious reader. I’ve been a reader all my life, but up until about a year ago I stuck mostly with cheap thrillers and a lot of non-fiction. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that at all. I haven’t abandoned those types of books. I just finally discovered, at the quarter-century mark of my life, that there’s more to books than Clive Cussler and Michael Crichton and David Baldacci. While I’ll always love those guys for really making me a reader, after the last year or so of reading mostly classics, I have a hard time picking up the latest thriller.

So how did I get here? What turned me on to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway? In high school, I even took AP English and Lit classes, I just didn’t read any of the assignments. The Scarlet Letter? Didn’t even take a copy of the book. Even something I probably would have thoroughly enjoyed as a 17-year-old, like The Things They Carried, didn’t make it into my tough schedule of playing video games and chatting with friends on AOL instant messenger after school. In college, I majored in journalism and religion, so didn’t get many classics even assigned in those four years.

Since about the middle of high school, I had a goal of reading 50 books a year. It’s pretty easy when you’re reading thrillers where the pages practically flip themselves. So I did that for about 6 years with no trouble. And then, I just got bored. I felt like I was reading the same stories, with the same fairly racist and sexist writing, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.

So I had to come up with a new book goal. 100 books? Only books that are 1,000 pages long? Stick to a single genre for an entire year? I needed to mix it up. While those goals would be fine, and certainly a challenge, I felt drawn to make my way through a list, like a proper book nerd would. But then the question was which list to go with? Something like the Best 100 Books would be perfect, but there’s about 100 of those. I had to get over my obsession with finding a perfect list and just pick one. I had recently started working for the Art of Manliness, where one of our most popular articles of all time is The Essential Man’s Library: 100 Must-Read Books. Granted, it’s certainly a bit dude-heavy, and a bit white as well, but I went with it. Again, no list will be perfect. Book lovers around the world just have to realize that fact and get over it.

I decided to only try to tackle one book off the list per month. That gives me about 8+ years of reading. It also gave me room to read other stuff on the side instead of being totally overwhelmed. Bear in mind, I’d not read really a single work considered to be a “classic.” So, I dove in, and haven’t looked back.

I started with The Great Gatsby, and loved it. In fact, I read it again just six months later, and I already feel an itch to pick it up for the third time come the new year. I could hardly believe that language could be so beautiful and form an incredible story at the same time. I thought pretty words were reserved for poems. And then I read Don Quixote. And then Frankenstein. And some Hemingway. And I can’t get enough. In fact, I’ve ended up going with far more than one per month lately because it’s all I want to read. I feel like I’m playing catch up with the great works of literature that I so foolishly passed over in high school and college.

While I admittedly don’t love everything I’ve read in the last year (Brideshead Revisited, A Confederacy of Dunces), I’m still glad I read them. Reading the classics has made me a better writer, a better conversationalist, has given me a greater understanding of humanity…but most importantly I really believe it’s made me a better friend, husband, and person.I’m a firm believer that the best books are the ones that teach us something about ourselves and the people around us. And that’s what truly makes a classic, in my opinion. When I look at Top 100 lists, while I certainly won’t agree with everything, I can pretty easily say that I can learn something from every one of them. And that’s the best gift that reading can give — the ability to open our eyes, expand our minds, and help us grow in understanding.

While I’m a little late to the party (I know, I’m only 25, but I can’t help how I feel, yo), I’m glad I joined in when I did. I’ve seen the best that reading has to offer, and I can’t wait to read the Dickens, Melville, Heller, and much more that sits on my bookshelf.

How did you discover the classics? Or maybe you haven’t yet? I want to chat about this with all of you, so please chime in! 

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