If you’re like me, you get anxious and marginally depressed when you see all the new books published each year.
It can happen at Barnes and Noble or while scanning the New York Times bestseller lists.
But the result is always the same: an acute sense of failure. How in the world can I read all of these books?
Fortunately, most books published each year will end up on the remainder pile–forgotten, useless and cheap.
Why you should read classic books
And while reading new books is a great way to stay on top of the latest ideas, I think it’s much better to make a habit of reading older books.
Here are nine reasons why. Enjoy!
1. Passed the classic test.
Old books are books with ideas and stories that endure for 50, 100–even thousands of years. When you read an old book, you can be confident it’s quality writing. Not so with new books.
2. Fewer GOOD old books.
Random House’s list of the 100 best novels [all classics, though that could change in 50 years] can be read in one year. You couldn’t possibly manage to do that will all the new fiction published in one year–even if you vowed to read 100 books a year or figured out the trick to reading a 291-page book in 2 hours.
3. Look odd, somewhat-sophisticated.
Reading classics adds a depth to your cocktail conversations you can’t get from new books. “You know, while I was reading Oedipus this morning, I thought of a way to solve our modern transit problem. All we have to do is….”
See how that works? You just look cool.
4. Learn about the past.
Classic novels, for instance, can teach you about a particular time of history–whether it’s reading Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [1920s] or Augustine’s City of God [100 BC to 400 AD]–while you’re enjoying yourself.
If you’re the type of worm who likes to own all your books but doesn’t have deep pockets, then Barnes and Noble re-packages old books in hardcovers and sells them for less than $10. You can also almost always find used copies of old books on Amazon.
Since most classics are in the public domain, you can find them free at many sources online, like the Project Gutenberg and Google Books for print versions or LibriVox for audio versions.
7. Available at your library.
Naturally you have a better chance of finding old books at your library. How many times have you been on a waiting list for new, popular fiction? Too many, I’m sure.
8. Lots of commentary.
One of the things I enjoyed about reading Steinbeck’s Of Mice or Men or Dickens Bleak House was hunting down the surrounding discussion on those books. The depth of supporting literature on old books grossly outweighs that of new.
9. Quality is better.
If it’s a classic, this is obvious. Why else would it endure? But what makes a book a classic? Themes that touch all people across time is one trait. Another trait is a sense of novelty. The book explores an idea for the first time of experiments with an new technique. What else?
What reasons can you think of that would convince someone to read more books? Did I miss anything?
And what do you think make books like Drucker’s The Practice of Management or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as classic? What qualities make a story like Homer’s Iliad timeless?
Please share. I look forward to your thoughts.
Douglas Prater says
10. Today, our vocabulary caters to the lowest common denominator. Literary masterpieces expose you to an eloquent repertoire of words and phrases.
11. Most writing today, especially online, is presented in bite-sized, easily digestible chunks. But some ideas need to presented in long form to be thoroughly understood. Old books expose you to the entirety of a position, not just the sound bites.
12. Classic literature permeates and influences contemporary thought in a way that takes its assumptions for granted. By critically analyzing these ideas in their original form, you can spot fallacious assumptions. It’s easier to challenge the status quo when you thoroughly understand it.
Demian Farnworth says
10. Amen. Honestly not sure why this didn’t occur to me but I’m in complete agreement.
11. Sometimes I like to break the web mold and write an uber long post because like you said some ideas need a lot of space to breath. Not a substitute for a good old book, but hey, trying. 😉
12. How true.
Thanks for the though-provoking comments, Douglas! Means a lot.
Will Marlow says
Great post — and I couldn’t agree more. I love to browse through used book sales, and one reason I enjoy it so much is that you can find very interesting anecdotes and stories in older biographies and autobiographies especially. For example, I remember reading the Autobiography of Mario Cuomo not long ago, and learning that in the 80s he traveled to Italy with Nancy Pelosi, who at the time was just the leader of the Northern California Democratic Party. It was interesting that Cuomo thought she was worth discussing in his autobiography, considering that she was nowhere near becoming the first female Speaker of the House.
Demian Farnworth says
Autobiographies and biographies are great examples of what I’m talking about for the very reason you mention. Falls into no. 4. Reading a bio on T. Roosevelt and loving the mind-opening info. Good stuff, Will. Thanks for commenting.