From a young age, I remember my mother, studying to become an English teacher, reading my sister and me lengthy books she had been assigned for class. As I became older, these books didn’t seem so intimidating anymore and curiosity took hold.
I began raiding my mom’s bookshelf, and I discovered the beauty in classic literature. I was addicted to what J.R.R Tolkien describes in his academic lecture, “On Fairy Stories,” as “a piercing glimpse of joy, and heart’s desire that can give a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears.” And while my peers detested the emotion-provoking stories of The Scarlet Letter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin read in my literature classes, I loved them.
I was alone in my own detest of modern literature such as the Twilight series, The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey. These quick reads may have their place in the hands of a traveler who needs something to read during a long plane ride, but their necessity does not extend beyond that. Ultimately, today’s literature cannot compare to classic novels that provoke our human emotions while challenging our brains.
Classic literature has an amazing ability to create emotion that many, including myself, are devoted to. In an academic journal of a collection of scholars from Pennsylvania State, University of Missouri and the University of Michigan, the psychological effects of reading Victorian literature were analyzed. Readers were asked about their emotions during the experiment. The study found that “like and “dislike” were not common; readers used terms like surprise, joy, sadness and anger instead. The variety of feeling was enormous. Classic novels evidently do not just represent human nature, they evoke certain impulses of emotion as well. The impulses and feelings of joy are what contemporary literature so often lacks. Instead, characters are left with a happy ending after struggling through the most basic distress, which is not representative of real life.
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I have read a few contemporary novels in my English classes that have challenged me intellectually and emotionally. There are several contemporary authors, such as Isabel Allende, Toni Morrison and David Mitchell, who have been recognized in the academic world for their outstanding writing.
Unfortunately, the popularity of these authors does not reflect their skill. Instead, many choose popular contemporary fiction like The Fault in Our Stars or the Percy Jackson series. Good modern literature is not widely read enough to make a tangible impact on our society.
I understand we as humans differ emotionally. But I plead society to read classic literature for the challenge, if not the emotional intelligence. It shouldn’t take two days to read a book. My peers thought I was crazy taking a week to read a novel, even when that was relatively fast for me.
Although I have experience reading classic literature, I still find myself challenged. There are several times when I have to go back and reread a section more than once. But that is the point. As readers and intellectuals, we should challenge ourselves. Society only needs to look at the research to see the benefits of challenging old-age literature.
Michigan State University professor Natalie Phillips looked at individuals’ brains after reading Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and found that when reading this 18th-century novel, subjects actually had increased blood flow to the brain. Critically reading classic literature is a kind of cognitive training. Modern literature does not engage the brain like older novels. Not being an avid reader is no excuse to neglect the literary world. A difficult novel which takes more than three days to read is no excuse for literary laziness.
Instead, I challenge you next time you’re at the library or a bookshop to head over to that classic literature section and pick a book up. Read the back cover. Find something that interests you and engross yourself in it. Read more than just the first three chapters.
It may take a couple times to reread a paragraph, or require looking up plot clarifications on Wikipedia, but do not let this be a deterrent. Challenge yourself to engage emotionally and intellectually in the way only classic literature can achieve.
Kelsey Stewart is a freshman with an undeclared major.