It can be odd, trying to define what makes a “classic” book. It’s tempting to call classics “serious” literature, but some classics aren’t serious at all–some of Shakespeare’s comedies, or Alice in Wonderland, for example. There are, of course, theories about how humor is good for the psyche and so on, but it’s doubtful at best whether Shakespeare or Lewis Carroll were thinking about the psychology of the human race while they wrote.
A better definition of a classic book is a book that is simply good–it does what it is supposed to do. If the book is intended to be a humorous story, then it is as fully humorous as possible. There aren’t damaged or unnecessary elements that drag the story down. As a result, a true classic may be easier to read than some modern books.
Unfortunately, I did not begin to realize that until I was nearly finished high school. Full understanding took even longer. Most of the “serious” books that I read in high school were modern nonfiction. I assumed that old fiction was stuffy and boring (although, simultaneously, I thought I should be reading more of it). Then, as part of a library reading program, I picked up Wuthering Heights.
The library had loaned out several copies of the book, if I remember correctly, and only had a large print edition left. As a result the book was lengthened to roughly 400 pages and was as large as a textbook. But even though I wasn’t used to the type, the book captivated me in a way I thought impossible for a 19th-century classic. Typically what draws me into a book is a strong atmosphere, and as I read Wuthering Heights, I was pulled completely into the world of Emily Brontë’s northern England. The empty moors, the rainy nights, the darkness…I had no idea that a classic could so completely consume my imagination.
C. S. Lewis wrote an introductory essay to a translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione that addressed that very issue–the fear many people feel about reading classic literature. In his words:
There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.
Lewis went on to recommend that, for every modern book we read, we balance it with three old books. Not only are classics easier to understand than lesser books, modern or otherwise, they help us be aware of our own presuppositions. I haven’t reached Lewis’s recommendation yet, but I’m at least trying to change my current ratio, which is weighted more with modern books.
I don’t know whether Lewis would have considered Great Expectations an “old book” or not. But I’ve stolen my brother’s library copy anyway. I had heard the book was extremely long, although it doesn’t seem too length right now–certainly no worse than Three Musketeers. In any case, stealing books can be delightful, so long as you steal the right ones.